A free horse camp teaches equestrian techniques and life skills to city students.
October 15, 2018
On a recent sunny day, 9-year-old Eyainna McClain beamed as she sat atop a horse with her arms extended, practicing an equestrian exercise in strength and stability. Carefully, she placed her hands on her head, protected by a bright pink helmet matching the beads in her hair. It felt a bit silly to her, she says. But she knew the skills would get her to where she wanted to be: riding her horse at a trot.
This summer was Eyainna's second at Detroit Horse Power's free weeklong day camp in New Hudson, Michigan, a 50-minute drive from her home on Detroit’s east side. But at the end of that trek was her reward: spending time with her favorite horse, Bella. “Everybody says she's small, and they always call me small. So I think I'm connected to her,” Eyainna says.
David Silver (Detroit '12) founded the nonprofit Detroit Horse Power in 2015, hosting 18 students that first summer. This year, 150 students made the long drive to horse camp each day from city neighborhoods—some of them beginners who had never been on a horse, others who are part of the “leadership cohort” of returning campers.
“There's something incredibly powerful about the horse-human connection and the kinds of personal growth that are possible working with these amazing animals,” says Silver, who started riding at the age of 10 in suburban Westchester County, New York. By 14, he was competing in riding triathlons, hooked by the thrill of riding in sync with an animal 10 times his size.
In 2012, Silver started teaching fourth and fifth grade at Burns Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. On his way to work, he drove past lot after vacant lot—one of the most visible effects of the city’s long economic decline. But in the empty land, he saw an opportunity. “That looks like it could be a paddock where horses could graze,” he remembers thinking. “That would make a beautiful riding field.”
Detroit has about 23 square miles of vacant land, equivalent to the size of Manhattan. At the peak of the city’s automotive and manufacturing boom in the late 1940s, more than 1.8 million residents lived there. Today, fewer than 700,000 people call it home. Schools have closed and consolidated as families have moved away, leaving few high-quality options for those who remain. According to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 5 percent of Detroit's fourth graders are proficient in math, and only 6 percent in reading.
As Silver progressed through his second year of teaching, his dream for Detroit Horse Power took shape. He imagined an urban camp where students like his could care for and learn to ride the animals he loved—a free opportunity that otherwise would be reserved for families who could spend $1,500 or more for a week of working with horses. At the same time, the camp could offer a way for kids to develop the social-emotional skills too often missing from their classroom experiences, like confidence, empathy, and responsible risk-taking.
"It says something powerful for a young student to have control of a 1,000-pound animal,” he says.
Silver visited established after-school programs to get word out to families about Detroit Horse Power. Some of the first students came from Burns Elementary-Middle, where he taught. Now, kids from all over the city make their way to the camp each summer, often sharing rides with partner organizations or volunteer drivers, including Silver himself.
During camp, students practice riding techniques, make horse snacks (sticky treats of carrots, apples, oatmeal, and molasses), and gather daily to reflect. On a summer day, the more experienced campers sat beneath a tree to practice meditation techniques while horses grazed in the distance. Inside the barn, the novice campers met in a circle to share what makes them proud. “My grades,” said Roderick Rhodes, 12, and “not being scared of the horses.”
In January, Silver hired Yvonne Mejias (Milwaukee ‘10) as the camp’s full-time program director, in part to manage the program’s growth. Mejias, who trained as an “escaramuza,” or Mexican horse dancer, in her native Chicago looks forward to introducing students to equestrian activities beyond trotting and jumping, like barrel racing.
Mejias says she can see signs of kids’ growth in confidence and self-control—even when they’re not riding horses. “The students walk around with these proud bodies, something you can see physically,” she says.
When kids aren’t riding, reflecting, or playing with one of the many cats and dogs roaming the grounds, they complete barn chores like raking hay. The chores are a show of gratitude for the owners of Ringside Equestrian Center, who are donating the space until Detroit Horse Power can purchase suitable land in the city. Students pay nothing thanks to donations and grants.
Mya Harling, 12, is one of Detroit Horse Power’s returning campers. This summer she progressed well with her trotting and also helped instruct the less advanced riders, including Eyainna. While she’d love to see Detroit Horse Power move into the city, she worries about her equine friends. “It’s not a safe city. I don’t want anything to happen to them,” she says.
Still, Silver and Mejias are committed to establishing an urban equestrian center. Silver sees it as a community-builder. “Our future is in the city,” he says. And Mejias wants Detroit kids to see that equestrian life does not need to be “just for others... it can be ours as well.”
This fall, Detroit Horse Power is starting a weekly after-school program to prepare students for camp next summer. Eyainna hopes to see Bella periodically throughout the year. On the last day of camp, she fed Bella treats by hand through a slat in a gate and read her a letter she wrote the day before. Eyainna asked Bella to stay safe and promised to see her soon. “You are special,” she said.