August 18, 2006
By MELISSA PIONZIO, Courant Staff Writer
With her long, dark hair flying in the breeze, 12-year-old Pearl Cortes smiled proudly as she showed off her horsemanship Thursday, during a summer program at Hillside Equestrian Meadows in Wolcott.
"Watch me!" Pearl shouted to program director Ruth Fried as she trotted around the paddock upon a sandy-colored gelding named Shane. "Can I show you how I know to trot and canter?"
Pearl, a resident of Hartford, is one of many children who participated in this summer's session of City Slickers, a program that brings together city and suburban children ages 11 to 17 to learn to ride, feed and care for horses. They also participate in projects that help to improve their language and math skills. Funding is provided by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, local corporations and private donors.
The program, which ends today, lasts five weeks with a different group of children each week. Many of the young riders had never touched, much less ridden, a horse before. Next spring, the children will return to Hillside once a week for 10 weeks to prepare to compete in a horse show with riders from all over Connecticut.
"This is an eye-opener for them to try something very challenging and very unique," said Fried, a physical education teacher at Burns Elementary School in Hartford, who has run City Slickers for 14 years. "Let's face it, those horses can take them out in a minute, they weigh a ton! But they are very gentle, very sensitive to a young, inexperienced rider."
For Pearl, who has been a City Slicker for two summers now, the program is a lot of fun.
"I get to ride and tack down my horse, take off the saddle and the bridle," she said. "The saddle is heavy, but I can manage."
Pearl, who arrives at the equestrian center by school bus, said she feels very relaxed when she rides, which relaxes the horse too.
"The horse knows," she said. "Because he rides smooth, he doesn't look confused. He listens to what I say."
Bristol resident Ben McConnell, who carpools to the program with other Bristol kids, said he has always liked horses, but never had the chance to ride one until this week when he became a City Slicker.
"The first time I rode, I thought the horse was really tall," said Ben, who turned 12 on Thursday. "It felt cool. It was a smooth ride."
Tricia Medina of Hartford has been involved in the program for four years and said she loves every minute of it. In the beginning she was afraid to ride because she thought she would fall off the horse, she said.
"But I didn't. I listened to the directions and I got more confident," she said. "I like to trot. It feels nice. The horse knows how you are feeling by your movements and how you approach. I'm quiet, I touch the horse to make sure it's OK that I'm there."
City Slickers also offers a vo-ag program which employs seven Hartford teenagers at Hillside during the summer. In addition to riding horses, the teens learn landscaping and maintenance skills and how to operate some farm machinery. Fifteen-year-old Raul Borrero said he is proud of the work he does on the farm, especially when it comes to the beds of flowers and vegetables he and his friends designed, planted and continue to maintain.
"Here it's different. We've got tasks to do and there's more responsibility," said Raul, who grew up with most of the other kids in the vo-ag program. "When I see the gardens I start smiling. We all do, because we did something good."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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