The healing power of friendship

Youth equine program a therapeutic, social experience


NORTH BENNINGTON — Walking up the side of a hill, trampling over the cut grass on a trail, Kendra Coon said the horse named Ghost is one of her favorites. After a few more steps, she admitted that she loves all 18 of the horses at Kimberly Farms.

"Once we get up to this corner, you can basically see the whole farm," Kendra, 12, said.

Below, behind the pastures made green and thick from all the spring rains, were the white farmhouse and the red barn. Two people walked from the parking lot to the barn, but distance made identification impossible.

"They must be Horse Club people," Kendra said. "They come here on Saturdays."

Visible far to the south were the top of the Bennington Battle Monument and some peaks in Massachusetts. Off to the right were hills in New York, whose state line runs just a few hundred yards to the east of the farm.

Ghost, a grey gelding, looked at Kendra and a visitor but did not approach the fence. He put his head down and went back to grazing.

"Everybody here is like family to me," Kendra said. She explained how she considers one of the riding instructors to be like a second mother.

"You can tell them about anything," said Kendra, a Bennington native. "It's so nice to have someone that you can talk to, and it helps me with a bunch of things that have gone wrong. I'll just tell them and they'll calm me down."

For the last four years, Kendra has been active in Gallop to Success, a program for at-risk youth aged 5 to 17. Participants undertake some farm work, but the therapeutic value of being in the company of horses is central to the Gallop to Success curriculum.

"They come with a love or horses, but this isn't a vocational program," said Val Shemeth, a registered nurse and the executive director of the program. She and her husband, Bob, own Kimberly Farms. "What they learn here should give them confidence in all aspects of their life."

Gallop to Success accepted its first students in 2013. Val Shemeth said most candidates are referred by school guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers or relatives. Participants are from Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.

"You'll find a lot of people that will come that are not in the best situation," said Morgan Martin, a riding instructor and the person Kendra looks to as a surrogate mother. "But they're able to connect with a horse and have that confidence between them and the horse. It's not judgmental at all. We're just going to love you, no matter what."

Gallop to Success, which is open to girls and boys, has three levels of participation. From now until the end of next month, some students will spend between one and six weeks on the farm. They live in a bunkhouse adjacent to the barn.

Other youngsters attend as day participants. Both day and overnight students take part in the same activities. Shemeth said she was planning for a combined total of 18 day and overnight students to participate this summer. This is double the number of summer attendees in 2018.

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"We have a lot of dialogue with them on how to conduct themselves in a work situation, in a situation where they're interacting with adults and where they're in charge," Shemeth said. As she spoke, two students drove past in the farm's utility cart. Operating the cart is one of the highest privileges given to participants. In return for the key, the students must keep the cart clean and not drive in a wild manner.

Eight young people are active in Gallop to Success all year. At least once a week, they are brought to the farm by family or picked up by a program volunteer. Kendra is one of the year-round participants. So is Karlene Sausville, 17, a Gallop to Success student for the last four years.

"Horses are a relaxing animal and I talk to them," said Karlene, from Bennington, a few minutes after Shemeth drove her to Kimberly Farms. "I call them my therapist because when I get extremely mad or upset about something, I just go to one of the horses and they calm me right down."

Karlene and Kendra split duties every Saturday, when they take care of the farm's barn.

"They hired me to do a job," Kendra said, smiling.

Gallop to Success, a nonprofit organization whose board and executives serve without compensation, is funded by private grants and contributions. Nearly all participants attend the program on a scholarship. Shemeth said many students come from families with financial struggles. Some households have been broken by substance abuse.

"There are kids that have never had a home-cooked meal," she said. "They don't understand sitting at a dinner table and passing around a plate of mashed potatoes and serving it."

Shemeth owns Gray Case Management, a medical consulting company, and her husband is a professional marketer. Bob Shemeth also handles the marketing for Gallop to Success.

As a way to help sustain Kimberly Farms, a 60-acre property that has been used for agriculture since 1798, the farm hosts trail rides, pony parties, birthday parties and other events for paying customers. These patrons are often upper-middle-class, and they typically bring their children. Gallop to Success attendees must then socialize with peers from different backgrounds.

"That's precisely what the intention is," Val Shemeth said. "Our candidates are not earmarked as 'at risk' kids. We intentionally are mainstreaming them and blending them in with the other kids for all kinds of reasons."

The program curriculum has been refined over the last six years, according to its executive director. Certain kinks were worked out, but the program has retained its equine focus. Participants are encouraged to build confidence by working together and developing friendships with their instructors, their peers and the horses.

There is no secret recipe for Gallop to Success, and no intellectual property rights. What has been developed and tweaked in North Bennington will be shared freely with others.

"Anybody who owns a farm with horses — they could set this program up," Shemeth said. "It doesn't require a huge amount of activity. You can do it just for a few kids. Our mission is to replicate this program in as many places as we possibly can."

Charles Erickson is a freelance writer living in Rensselaer County, N.Y.


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