Urban Barn Teaches Teamwork through Horseback Riding
Southern California isn’t exactly the Wild West anymore, but one group of cowgirls is saddling up at an urban barn right here in Los Angeles.
Nestled in a hidden corner of the city, right next door to Griffith Park, is Taking the Reins, a little barn with a big mission.
The barn is home to a non-profit dedicated to empowering girls through horseback riding.
Program Director Janiene Langford coordinates both the weekend and weekday programs for girls from all across the Los Angeles area.
“A lot of these young women are coming out of situations where they’re socioeconomically challenged in their families and their parents simply can’t afford to do it,” Langford said.
Taking the Reins has offered free riding lessons since 1998. Since then, the group has served more than 1,000 girls.
Many of the students come from urban areas with high rates of gangs, drugs and violence. School counselors choose girls who they think would most benefit from the program.
“I love coming out here every Saturday,” said high school sophomore Melissa Morado.
Morado is a veteran of the program, having ridden here at the barn for more than three years.
“The best thing it has taught me is patience and control,” Morado said. “Like, before if I was doing something and I messed up, I would immediately get mad. I didn’t know how to control myself. And here, if I make a mistake, that’s okay. I can learn how to improve.”
The program is often the first and only chance for these girls to interact with large animals.
“They’re really getting a sense of the natural world in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily in their day to day lives living in urban Los Angeles,” said Langford.
The girls first learn how to groom and care for the animals. Then, they take on more advanced skills like the trot, canter and gallop.
As an elite sport, horseback riding lessons can cost up to 75 dollars for a half hour lesson. Here at Taking the Reins, the 8-week after school program, which serves more 200 girls a year, costs the girls and their families absolutely nothing.
The costs for the more advanced weekend program is based on financial need. Donations and scholarships cover nearly all of the costs and most girls pay little to no fees for the continued lessons.
Former teacher Gail Mills donated her 13-year-old American quarter horse, G.G., to Taking the Reins after a long career competing in reining competitions. She said G.G. has found a new purpose in her comfortable retirement.
“Working with horses requires a lot of discipline, a lot of patience, a lot of understanding, and those are characteristics that are valuable in any walk of life,” Mills said.
Once outside of their comfort zone and away from the pressures of being a teenager, the girls build confidence and teamwork skills.
“I used to be like extremely awkward around my gender because I didn’t know what to talk about,” Morado said. “Because I like Power Rangers and stuff. So I got to know how to socialize with girls that were my age.”
Taking the Reins is more than just horseback riding. The girls also work in the organic garden behind the barn and learn about nutrition and the rich agricultural history of the L.A. area. They also take classes in creative writing, photography and equine science.
From this, they learn to express themselves and be proud of how far they have come.
“Being here, watching them from day one until their last day. I see, it’s almost like two different people,” said Barn Manager Rayna Marotti.
“It just changes you so much and it changes you for the better,” said high school sophomore Mary Barrientos. “It shows you that who you are, you have to have the courage to be like that out there.”
With the personal growth, the girls often take a way a new sense of self that carries far beyond the gates of the barn.
“Taking the Reins has improved my sense of who I am,” Morado said. “Because when people ask me who am I, I immediately say, I’m a cowgirl at Taking the Reins.”