Detroit Horse Power: Urban Horsemanship Provides A Proven Tool For Changing Lives

06/30/2015 03:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

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There are models across the country where horses are brought into urban environments to enhance the lives of those within. They exist legally via ordinance or special use permits, some for recreational purposes such as the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Others exist for therapeutic or rehabilitative purposes such as Horses in the Hood, based in the Watts and Compton areas of south central Los Angeles and the long-standing Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia.

All of these organizations exist to gain social, psychological and educational benefit from the use of horses as a vehicle for personal growth. For centuries the practice of horsemanship has been utilized to instill in riders and care-givers the key attributes required of them as successful adults and future leaders: patience, courage, persistence, confidence and a solid work ethic. In addition, success in the practice of horsemanship requires that the student become a compassionate and empathetic care-giver and skilled at non-violent conflict resolution. They must also have the strength to overcome their fears and embrace their own ability toward self-determination. In short, horsemanship makes us better humans. It also provides job skills.

According to the most recent economic data, the equine industry has a direct economic impact on the U.S. economy of $39 billion annually which increases to $102 billion when the multiplier effect of spending by industry suppliers and employees is taken into account. Equine related industry provides 460,000 jobs tied to the over 9.2 million horses in the U.S. The basic equestrian skills and knowledge required for employment in many facets of the industry are acquired through the study and practice of horsemanship itself. Further, there are numerous university level educational programs, many resulting in four-year degrees in equine sciences, whose graduates go on to successful careers within the industry. Thus, finding ways to expose urban youth to the world of horses serves to provide access to future employment and educational opportunities they might not otherwise have.

While all major cities could benefit from horsemanship programs, there are few urban centers more in need of a program such as this than Detroit where the latest efforts are taking place. We all know the negative headlines, the horrific images of desolation that have defined the news frame for Detroit. We also know that there is a perceived resurgence underway in the city center. However, that 'resurgence' has yet to translate out to the residents occupying the 132 square miles of decimated neighborhoods and sprawling vacant swaths of land that surround it. Given the dire need for broadening youth opportunities in these neighborhoods, coupled with the positive community support systems seeking innovative solutions, now is a good time to introduce the concept of the urban equestrian youth program to the city. A man named David Silver agrees.

David landed in Detroit via Teach for America almost three years ago. Armed with a degree from Dartmouth, preppy looks and the eloquence born of a Westchester, New York childhood zip code, David joined the growing numbers of otherwise privileged young adults taking up residence in a place that has not always been, hospitable shall we say, to such a demographic.

After fulfilling his two-years working as a teacher on the west side of the city, David, born with a keen sense for social justice and frustrated by the extenuating life circumstances his students were experiencing outside of school and the obstacles they then faced inside of school as a result, decided that he could be more effective in impacting their lives positively away from the classroom and it's limitations.

Now, one might expect someone like David, after being in a place like Detroit for two years, to acknowledge his limits, fold his cards and get the heck out of dodge, off to some other place where life would probably be a whole lot easier for him. Not so for David. Though he is not a native Detroiter, he is a horseman and, take it from this author as a 4th generation Detroiter and professional horsewoman, if there is one type of person in this world that has more grit, persistence, patience, courage and raw tenacity than a Detroiter, it's a horseman.

Inspired in part by his fellow new arrivals, drawn by Detroit's opportunities and the prevailing atmosphere of possibility, David decided to stay, to innovate and create a solution for the problem as he saw it with the tools his life in the company of horses had given him. Knowing full well how powerful the work of horsemanship had been in his own life, infusing in him the core virtues he needed to flourish as an adult, he decided to find a way for the youth of Detroit to experience the same benefits from this ancient practice, barriers of privilege be damned. He founded a 501c-3, named it aptly Detroit Horse Power, tapped his savings account and got to work.

David and a small group of volunteers, put on their first horse camp recently as guests at The Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center in Rouge Park, (one of two locations currently allowed to have horses on site in the city, the second being the mounted division of the Detroit Police Department based in Palmer Park) and in collaboration with Alternatives for Girls, another non-profit whose mission is to help homeless and at-risk young women in the city by providing support, resources and opportunity.

Detroit Horse Power faces the typical obstacles expected in such an endeavor. Obstacles such as achieving inclusion within a pending livestock ordinance for 'outliers' (the term used for agricultural animals beyond the those typically found in urban agriculture such as chickens and goats) or, obtaining a special use permit; finding a suitable location where the organizations goal of becoming an integral part of the immediate neighborhood could be attained; funding construction of a new, or adaptive reuse of an existing, facility that can accommodate 15 to 25 stalls, an 80 x 200 clear span indoor riding hall and enough vacant land for an outdoor arena and turnout areas for the horses as well as meeting and classroom space.

There is an old saying amongst horsemen: "Throw your heart over the fence, the horse will follow." Given the sheer magnitude of trans-generational, community-wide benefit an urban horsemanship program based at a permanent facility would bring to the city, none of these obstacles are insurmountable if the will exists to create it.

By the third day of their first exposure to the horses, several young women who attended the Detroit Horse Power's pilot camp program had overcome their fears enough to take the next step: ride one. One young woman, escorted by an assistant on each side of the horse as she was led around the small paddock by founder David Silver, learned how to stop, steer and walk on. As she made these requests of the 1200 pound animal beneath her without the assistance of her ground crew for the first time, only to have it immediately obey, her face lit up. David asked her if she had ever known how strong she was? She smiled and said "No, but now I do."

To learn more about Detroit Horse Power and to offer your support, find them on Facebook here.