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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Horse Ranch

Air Date: Week of

A group of outdoor educators in Oakland, California is trying to break the grip of strictly urban life on teenagers by getting them out on horseback in the Oakland Hills. Jacinda Abcarian of Youth Radio in Oakland reports.


CURWOOD: Some child development specialists say kids need wild places and relationships with other creatures to develop properly. And yet, exposure to the countryside and different animals can be hard for young city dwellers to get. A group of outdoor educators at Oakland, California, is trying to break the grip of strictly urban life on teenagers by getting them out on horseback in the Oakland Hills. Here they can ride over more than 1,000 miles of woodland trails while learning how to communicate with another species. Jacinda Abcarian of Youth Radio in Oakland has our report.

(Man: "You guys review the things we learned yesterday about controlling a horse." Second man: "Whoa!" First man: "Whoa, and that's -- what do you do for whoa?" Young man 1: "Stop." Young man 2: "Pull back." Man: "Pull back." Young man: "You want to turn right, you...")

ABCARIAN: In the hills high about the city streets of Oakland, Harvey Smith is sitting on the back of an Appaloosa horse. He's demonstrating riding techniques to a group of high school students gathered around after school.

SMITH: Again, notice. My feet are not in the stirrups, so I'm balancing. Again, I don't expect you guys to do that first off, but just actually...

(A horse snorts)

ABCARIAN: Smith is one of the founders of the Wild Cat Canyon Ranch. It's a youth program which brings teens an alternative to life in their urban neighborhoods.

MAN: Whoa! Whoa!

SMITH: ... walk. Just pull it. Slow it.

MAN: Whoa! Whoa!

(Several people laugh)

WESLEY: You know, when the kids first come here, you know, they see the horses. And horses are alive and standing there in flesh and bones, and it's quite a different thing than seeing one on television. And most kids, you know, have a different reaction to it. And the first reaction they have is fear.

ABCARIAN: Kenneth Wesley is known to the kids as "Sonny." Wesley used to counsel suburban teens in a local psychiatric hospital. But now he works with city youth here 7 days a week. He grew up around horses in Louisiana and believes that kids these days are deprived of contact with animals and the rest of nature.

WESLEY: So you see them go from the transformation of being totally afraid to even touch the horse to touching, feeling, you know, to riding, and, you know, you see the self esteem, and you see how they feel empowered to be able to handle a 1,300 or 1,500 pound animal.

(A horse whinnies)

ABCARIAN: Wesley and his partner Smith, another urban cowboy, established the ranch after convincing the Oakland City Council that this public land should be dedicated to environmental education for urban youth.

LAMAR: First time I got on one it was just, they just rode off fast and I was just scared.

ABCARIAN: Thirteen-year-old Lamar enjoys riding the horses but admits it took some getting used to. But like Lamar, the other students who come to Wild Cat Canyon Ranch don't immediately jump on a horse and ride off into the sunset. They must first learn to respect animals and do their fair share of maintaining the ranch. They repair corrals, groom the horses, and of course shovel hay and manure. It's hard work, but many teens say they appreciate the refreshing change from their daily lives.

STUDENT 1: It's quiet over here. People just chillin' over here, working on the horses and stuff like that.

STUDENT 2: There are no drug dealers on the corner. There ain't no yelling or no car sounds anywhere ain't no music.

STUDENT 3: It's a lot of fun. It's a way, I don't know, for me to just sometimes get out of the house or (laughs) you know, be like, yeah I'm going to go to the horse ranch and, you know, take the horses out. You know, just something for me to get out my energy.

STUDENT 4: I enjoy certain things. I mean I don't too much care for the manure.

(A horse whinnies)

WESLEY: At first, you know, kids will come up and say ugh, what's that? Horse dookey! Ugh! You know? And they're several feet away. And then after we explain a little bit about it, well, okay, you know, these animals are vegetarians, you know. And also look over here, look at this pile of compost. You know, that was the manure several weeks ago, you know. And now, when that -- that reaction, you know, takes place in the compost pile, we're going to use that to enrich the soil, either here or someone's going to haul it off and take it someplace else.

ABCARIAN: Harvey Smith has taught high school and is now teaching students the important relationship between humans and their environment.

SMITH: We're literally introducing Oakland kids to oak trees. You know, Oakland was named after a tree, but the kids in Oakland don't know what the oak is. To get out and see a bigger part of the world broadens your horizons.

ABCARIAN: Wesley and Smith are now setting up a classroom at the ranch where they will teach veterinary science. But most of the learning takes place outside.

PERKINS: ... very subtle moves that are being looked out, you know? So they, you know, just with a nudge of the knee, you know, some body language, the horse is doing what the rider wants. And so that's kind of what you're trying to work up to. And they don't ...

ABCARIAN: Although he was born and raised in the city, Miles Perkins has been riding horses and regularly helping out at Wild Cat Canyon. He says the ranch challenges the cultural stereotype of young African American men.

PERKINS: Not a lot of people think that, you know, there are many African American people that are working with horses, and living, you know, down in the flatlands. But in fact that is the case. You know, you need to keep your options open.

(A horse trots and whinnies)

ABCARIAN: Wild Cat Canyon is all about new options. It's a place where East Bay teens can escape the stress of the city, find inspiration and skills, maybe get a head start in environmental careers. And start a new relationship with the natural world.

(A horse trots. Someone laughs)

ABCARIAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jocinda Abcarian in Oakland.



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