Patricia Kelly sits at a picnic table and gazes over an expanse of barns and pastures of grazing horses, a “campus” she has built over the past 36 years for the riding group Ebony Horsewomen Inc.
It’s hard to believe we are in Hartford’s North End. But these eight city-owned acres are at the edge of Keney Park, a 693-acre oasis that’s a perfect place to ride horses. “I grew up four blocks from here,” Kelly says, casting her mind back to what life was like there in the 1950s. “This whole neighborhood was white,” she says. “Jewish and Italian families. My family was the second black one on Clark Street. It was not a happy time here.”
But one day she met a Jewish grocer. “He had a horse that he used with his wagon to deliver groceries. When he showed me that horse, it was love at first sight.”
A Holocaust survivor, the grocer detested prejudice. When he overheard white kids taunting her with racial slurs, he told her, “Little girl, don’t worry about them.” And to soothe her wounded feelings, he taught her how to ride his horse. “It’s what I needed,” she says.
Many years later, Kelly came back home to Hartford after serving with the U.S. Marine Corps, where for three years she decoded messages sent back by American soldiers in Vietnam. “They were messages of death from the war,” she says. “And that can be a bit much. All the deaths. All those deaths.”
After returning to Hartford, Kelly got married, then divorced and tried to find her way. “Living in an urban center in and of itself is a lot.”
But then she met another horseman who helped her heal through riding: Eddie “Puddinhead” Merritt, who owned a store on Albany Avenue in Hartford but also had a farm in Glastonbury where he kept his horses. “I needed to ride again and he let me come out to his farm and ride,” she says. “I realized this incredible peace I was getting.”
Merritt had formed a group called Ebony Horsemen in the early 1960s. They disbanded in the late 1970s but they gave Kelly an idea. “I was inspired to start Ebony Horsewomen. I called my girlfriends and got them involved. We were off and running.”
The year was 1984; Kelly notes this was “a tough time for Hartford. It was the beginning of the heroin epidemic.” This scourge decimated many Black and Latino families, and Kelly saw it all around her. “We realized children were in dire need of the therapy that we were getting from the horses. And so in 1985 I changed Ebony Horsewomen to an organization for kids.”
More than three decades later, Kelly, the founder, CEO and president of this unique resource, is still overseeing programs that help hundreds of youths and hundreds more adults.
Kelly says people should not misconstrue the words “ebony” and “horsewomen” when it comes to her organization. She estimates about 30 percent of the participants are male and 15 percent are white.
In addition to a summer day camp, there are classes in horse riding, a Junior Mounted Patrol Unit of young Black males who patrol Keney Park, and an equine-assisted therapy program. A “therapeutic barn” with horses is reserved for this purpose.
The therapeutic value of a horse becomes evident when I ask Kelly how riding and grooming these animals brings her peace. “They’re social animals,” she says. “Humans have families; horses have herds. They’re much better at it than we are.”
A horse’s sociability extends also to people, as Kelly learned long ago. “They want to be with you; they need to be with you. They’ll accept you if you’re safe. They can discern when there’s danger around. If you come here with anger, chaos, trauma and depression, they can sense that. This will give them cause for pause. When a young man is full of anger, the horse will communicate to him: ‘We can’t do business today. You have an energy level I can’t be around.’ And you begin to understand: ‘I have to bring down my energy so I can join with this animal, so we can become one.’ Over time these young men and women understand: ‘I have to do something about how I respond.’ That is what the horses teach. That’s why this program works. The child begins to heal, becomes more expressive.”
Kelly says a key to equine therapy is that it’s non-verbal. She notes this overcomes the stigma in Black and Latino cultures about talk therapy. She encounters many troubled youths who won’t reveal their feelings. “But I’ll walk past the stall’s doors and hear them talking to the horse. They’ll never tell you what’s wrong but they will tell the horse. And that’s therapy.”
Mayra Esquilin of Hartford says her daughter Alianna Tosado was in third grade when she began to show troubling signs of emotional turmoil. In school she wrote: “I hate myself.” At home she got suddenly upset and angry. She was hiding in the closet and slamming doors.
Her mother put her in counseling, but the breakthrough didn’t come until Alianna was introduced to the horses at Ebony Horsewomen. “I took her to EH’s rodeo and she fell in love with it. I enrolled her in the summer camp and she hasn’t stopped. She learned how to ride, she learned about animals and she’s ridden in horse shows.”
Alianna also entered the equine therapy program. “It used to be when she was overwhelmed emotionally, she’d withdraw,” Esquilin says. “This program has helped her to express herself and not feel so isolated.”
Alianna will soon be taking courses at Middlesex Community College to become certified as a veterinary technician.
Esquilin says of Ebony Horsewomen: “It’s a treasure. But many people in our city and state don’t know about it. You don’t see something like this anywhere else.”
This nonprofit, which always faces financial challenges that are usually met by grants, donations and limited program fees, is even more challenged since COVID hit. Classes have gone virtual and weekend activities are restricted. (To learn more and support Ebony Horsewomen, go to ebonyhorsewomen.us).
At 73, how much longer does Kelly want to keep all this going? “Until they drag me out, I’ll be here!”