Add Event My Events Log In

Upcoming Events

    A Bit Deeper

    Print this page

    Horses kick up dust as they retrace their steps, carrying young riders inside the round red metal arena at the Louisville Equestrian Center in Taylorsville. A 17-year-old I’ll call Dwayne watches from the nearby tack room, a squeaky overhead fan ticking away the slow summer afternoon seconds before it’s his time to ride. 

    It’s Friday, the last day of this week’s HOOF (Horses Offering Opportunities for the Future) Academy — a week-long nonprofit summer program that teaches kids how to care for and ride horses. “Are they done yet? Are they done?” Dwayne asks as he cleans bridles hanging from the ceiling. He and a group of teenage boys from Spring Meadows — a residential facility for youth in the state’s care — sing lines from Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” between their impatient questions. 

    Brooke Broders, a HOOF counselor with a long blond ponytail streaming out from under a baseball cap, looks at her watch. “Probably another 10 minutes,” she says. Dwayne sighs and scuffs his two-toned  leather cowboy boots on the dusty tack room floor.

    Halie Heller, a direct-care counselor at Spring Meadows, says Dwayne came to their facility wearing those two-toned boots, a pair of black sweatpants tucked into their tops. Before coming to Spring Meadows, Dwayne wasn’t really from anywhere. He moved from house to house, state to state with his mother and siblings, staying with whoever would take them.

    The first few weeks at Spring Meadows, Dwayne was angry and he let everyone around him know it. If you wanted Dwayne to participate in anything, Heller says, he was rude, and would argue until you gave up. But that was four months ago. Today, Dwayne is quietly but confidently navigating the strange threshold of legally defined adulthood. 

    One week isn’t a long time to learn how to ride, but Dwayne is determined. At every learning station, his hand flies upward with both questions and answers. He observes the LEC staff while other kids take breaks on the arena risers. 

    Dwayne and the Spring Meadows group know the younger riders are done before Broders does, throwing their sponges in a soapy bucket and starting toward the arena gate, past a woman in a blue shirt with a Winston Churchill quote in white letters on the back: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a person.”


    When HOOF founder Diane Frederick moved from Ohio to Kentucky in 1985, she thought learning to ride horses was a rite of passage in her new state. She and her two young daughters started riding at Walnut Way Farm in Shelbyville, where Frederick fell deeply in love with the sport. “It’s just a different lifestyle at the barn. The horses are so warm and you just want to hug them. And they don’t talk back!” she says, laughing. 

    But in 1990, something changed. Frederick hit her head in her closet and suffered a concussion. As the months went by, she started getting panic attacks and was hospitalized for about a month. Treatment helped, but she developed agoraphobia, afraid that she wouldn’t adjust  to being back in the world. When someone on the hospital staff asked her, “Isn’t there anything you want to do?” Frederick replied, “I want to ride horses again.” 

    Years after her recovery, Frederick worked at a transitional home for women and children, and saw herself in some of the things they were going through. While she knew she couldn’t fix everything for them, she thought they could benefit from being around horses. “Riding horses is about caring for people, too. You have to be kind,” she says. “Maybe if we did that with other people, and with ourselves, we could be better.” 

    So HOOF was born, through a partnership with Betsy Webb, a former riding instructor at Walnut Way who now owns the Louisville Equestrian Center, where the program is held every year. HOOF’s all-volunteer staff, together with LEC employees, have hosted two academies of 30 kids every summer since 2011. 

    Heller says that for the boys from Spring Meadows like Dwayne, cultivating a relationship with a horse can be gratifying. “A lot of the time they feel like everyone sees them as bad, or that they’re damaged,” Heller says. “But the horses don’t feel that. They only see that you’re taking the time to care for them.”

    While kids learn about horse behavior at HOOF, they’re also learning about their own emotions, according to Mayghin Levine, director of programs at the Cabbage Patch Settlement House, a children’s- empowerment nonprofit based in Old Louisville that has a long-term partnership with HOOF Academy. “There’s this giant creature who is dependent on  what you do. You have to pay attention,” she says. “Like when a horse is mad, its ears lay flat. So I ask the kids, ‘What do you do when you’re mad? Clench your fists?’ It’s very much the same.” 

    “Most kids when they come, they’re afraid,” Frederick says. “When they get on the horse, they’re doing something they’ve probably never done before. Just getting on the horse is conquering a fear.” 

    At first, HOOF participants and horses walk around the arena, led by LEC counselors- in-training, called “ground buddies” at HOOF. Once riders are comfortable on the horse, ground buddies lead them while trotting. Trotting may not be fast, but it isn’t easy for new riders, either. Riders must then learn to post, or push themselves up out of the saddle in rhythm with the trot, to absorb the impact of the horse’s movements. The ultimate goal for HOOF students is to trot and post on their own by the end of the week. 

    In the horse world, it’s called being “turned loose.”


    Dwayne and the Spring Meadows group line up on one side of a row of orange cones in the middle of the arena, while ground buddies line up the horses on the opposite side. The pair of two-toned brown leather cowboy boots stops in front of a pinto Arabian Saddlebred with deep brown and white patches and a blond mane. The horse’s name is Taz. 

    Dwayne places his left boot in the stirrup and swings the other over Taz’s back. He holds a rein in each hand, a hallmark of English-style riding, designed to give the rider closer contact with the horse.  “The horse is like your legs, because you’re controlling it,” Dwayne says. “It’s like it’s a part of you.” 

    Although Dwayne has to draw upon everything he’s learned throughout HOOF Academy, riding feels natural to him. It’s his chance to think about nothing. “You have to trust the horse and the horse has to trust you,” he says. 

    The ground buddy turns Dwayne and Taz away from the orange cones and leads them toward the fence at the edge of the arena, where they’ll wait for the signal to walk, and then trot. But the ground buddy drops her hand before making it all the way there. She knows Dwayne has nothing to worry about. He jabs his two-toned boot heels into Taz’s side and lifts himself out of the saddle in rhythm with the horse’s quickened pace. 

    One week isn’t a long time to learn how to ride, but Dwayne has done it. He’s turned loose.

    Later in the afternoon, Dwayne will win the Diane Frederick Vision Award, given to the HOOF participant who shows the most interest and discipline when learning to ride. That plaque will end up in his room at Spring Meadow, after he shows it to every counselor there. 

    Four months isn’t a long time to grow up, but Dwayne is trying. In one month, he will turn 18 and age out of Spring Meadows. Dwayne says he’s had to learn how to face the consequences of his actions, and to take responsibility for himself and those around him. When he leaves, he says, he’ll go back to his home state. 

    But not before he spends another week at HOOF camp. He can’t wait to learn how to canter.

    This originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "By the Reins." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

    Share On: