Iowa Public Television


Horses Turn Lives Around

posted on May 6, 2005

Former President Clinton this week launched a 10-year initiative to combat childhood obesity. Undertaking this project comes just a year after Clinton's heart bypass surgery, where no doubt, his awareness was raised about the benefits of a healthy diet.

Today's children, Clinton said, are consuming more sugar and fatty foods than ever before. The goal of the initiative is to reverse the trend in childhood obesity and, in his words, help "children live to be 90 years old..."

The health and well-being of any child is a full-time job, and NOT just on the nutritional front. In fact, keeping kids on the right path sometimes requires a new approach.

In Oregon, troubled teens are getting back on track with the help of an innovative program that teaches responsibility from the saddle. David Miller explains.

Horses Turn Lives Around Dalton Walker is a typical 8th grade middle school student. He attends classes at Oaklea Middle School in Junction City, Oregon, and participates in extra curricular activities.

Dalton Walker, student: "I'm a tri-sport athlete that also does Pony Club here in Eugene and then I am kind of never home to do anything. I try when I am home to sit around with my family when I can."

But things weren't always this way. When Walker started at Oaklea in 5th grade he was a discipline problem.

Joann Ferrell, Oaklea Middle School: "...they were a little more than just things like running in the hallway. They were things like fighting and things like saying inappropriate things to teachers, calling a teacher stupid, those sorts of things..."

His father, Scott Walker, began looking for a way to solve the problem.

Scott Walker, Dalton's father: "I know him and I know what he's thinking and I know that he may not necessarily be out there right now he wouldn't be, I don't think he'd be doing drugs or in a gang or anything but there is potential there definitely for the rebellion and for, you know, getting into trouble and hanging with the wrong crowd because, I mean, I did that myself."

During his search, he encountered this man, Rhett Davis, chairman and director of the Realizing Individual Dreams Equestrian Ranch program, or RIDER Summit for short. Davis, formerly the Police Chief in Powers, Oregon, believes giving a young teenager the care and feeding of a horse is one way to help keep young at-risk kids out of trouble.

Rhett Davis, RIDER Summit: "...because I wanted them to stay in the program for at least three years, get them through those crucial, trying times as a teenager -- we've all been in school and know that there are temptations out there and it seems to be the toughest at that time."

Walker is a typical program member. In order to keep his horse Bubba, he has signed RIDER Summit's standard three-year contract. In exchange for use of the horse, he has agreed to stay in school, get passing grades, stay out of trouble with the law, and stay off drugs. For young women involved in the program, there is an added codicil to avoid becoming pregnant. When Market to Market first visited Walker he was is in the second year of his contract.

Dalton Walker, student: "Yes, I believe it gives you a consequence for your actions. If you make a bad decision there is always that thought, I could lose my horse over this. So, you kind of think well, should I do it? Should I not? It makes you mature quite a bit faster than a lot of other people do."

One benefit of his change in attitude has been the addition of responsibility at school. Walker is now a student aid for one of Oaklea Middle School's physical education classes.

And his father and teachers have noticed a difference in the way Dalton handles himself and interacts with others.

Scott Walker, Dalton's father: "...there is a horse there that he could lose if he doesn't, you know, follow all the rules and I think that is a really, you know, really positive influence on him and plus with being in the Pony Club and everything he's got, you know, ribbons all over the wall, trophies that he's won. So, he is also getting something out of it besides just the responsibility."

Joann Ferrell, Oaklea Middle School: "...I can notice a change even in the hallways, he's not yelling, he's not slamming his locker, kids are saying good things about him. I notice that he has more friends so it's great to see that change in Dalton."

Today, members of the Junction City branch of RIDER are meeting for a trail ride. Dalton is so busy with his other extra-curricular activities, football and Pony Club, he is unable to attend today's ride.

When the program was started, Davis received a grant for 25 thousand dollars from the Ford Family Foundation. The money went for feed and specialized horse show equipment. Now, much of the feed bill is paid for by participating parents, donations, and RIDER Summit board members. Horses are boarded everywhere from individual farms and homes to commercially operated stables.

With the help of several adults, including his wife Sonya, Davis has begun to accomplish his dream. Along the way, he has been trying to find horses, all of which are donated, for as many children as possible.

Since May of 2000, 150 students have signed up to be part of the RIDER Summit program. Until recently, there were 85 participants in five Oregon cities but there were only horses for 65 of them. Since last winter, most of the students have graduated and earned the right to keep their horses. Now there are only eight young adults in the program.

For Travis Nicholson, the experience has been a good one.

Travis Nicholson, student: " just have something to look forward to like when you get out of school you get to go down and do whatever you want to and spend all day down there riding."

And Nicholson's teachers have noticed a positive change, as well.

Travis Nicholson, student: "Well, some of them do, they say that you've been concentrating more and I've seen a big improvement and all this other stuff about it."

For Sara Walz, getting involved did more than just improve her grades.

Sara Walz, student: "Well, I wasn't doing very good, I wasn't focusing and I didn't want to do my work and I'd just get all upset and I was getting D's and F's...Well, I'd rather be with my horse than being out and getting in trouble and just having her there is really nice."

In the future, Davis hopes to have permanent locations around the state for students to spend the weekend. For now, he is pleased with the way RIDER Summit has helped several at-risk teens.

Rhett Davis, RIDER Summit: "We made a transformation because to be in the program they had to be back in school and not get in trouble and it was amazing to watch the transformation for some of these teens just to a sweet child. It was there all the time; we just needed to polish up the stone."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.

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