As the sun set on a picture-perfect crisp autumn Saturday, horses neighed and excitement filled the air at Merrymac Farm in Charlotte ahead of a special open house.
Friends and family members of kids who attend Burlington’s King Street Center arrived to see firsthand what their youngsters have been up to for the past six weeks.
Inside the farm’s main barn, middle school students were fixed atop their preferred horses, brimming with smiles and taking slow laps under the guidance of Merrymac volunteers. While they were circulating, farm owner Era MacDonald welcomed the students and their guests.
“Today is a showcase to primarily get families out [to the farm], so that they get to see their kids actually on the horse, not just through pictures,” said MacDonald, standing by the entrance gate to the riding arena.
The students started visiting Merrymac this summer and they’ve continued into fall for a program jointly organized by MacDonald and King Street Center’s Education Director Deena Murphy.
During their time at the farm, students have learned to clean stalls, brush and groom horses, and eventually ride, with an added bonus: a cast of assorted farm animals some had never seen before.
King Street Center in downtown Burlington serves as a place for kids to meet opportunity through learning, play and community. Many of its students are from families of new Americans, and the Merrymac program has provided a unique opportunity for city kids to experience rural Vermont life and animals for the first time.
For some of the students’ parents, Saturday’s open house was their first time on a farm as well.
“Today was really special. I have never seen a live horse in my life – only pictures – but today I got to see them in person,” said Geni Maftah as her 10-year-old son Hassan was being helped off his favorite pony in the barn.
“Sierra is the best horse because she is the biggest,” Hassan explained.
Despite being a little scared of riding at first, Hassan’s time at Merrymac distilled in him a new confidence. As he rode around the barn, feet above his onlookers, he maintained a grin from ear-to-ear.
This type of personal growth was MacDonald’s exact intention when she reached out to King Street Center one year ago.
“We’re not here to make future equestrians that are showing in fancy shows,” MacDonald said. “We are here for [students] to establish relationships with the animals and to work with the animals, in turn working on themselves.”
“Better horse, better person,” she added.
Some of the program’s students, however, envision their own path towards equestrianism.
Aubrie Robbins, 10, first started riding when she was about 4. The King Street Center-Merrymac program offers her family an affordable and convenient way for her to pursue her passion.
Asked if she was nervous when she started riding, she shot back a dumbfounded look, and replied from experience.
“If you’re scared, the horse will know and the ride won’t go smoothly,” she said.
When students show sincere, consistent interest, the King Street Center tries its best to get them out to the farm via bus or van.
“We have some kids that have really natural horsemanship skills, and natural animal skills,” MacDonald said.
Funding, however, can be a challenge.
“If we cannot get grant money, we are considering providing individual scholarships for those who are very committed, so kids like Aubrey get a chance to ride,” MacDonald added.
Program organizers said they hoped Saturday’s open house – attended by community members and regulars at the barn – would demonstrate to the community the benefit of the program and attract more support in the form of donations and volunteers.
Both MacDonald and Murphy explained that additional funding could help expand the program to youngsters who aren’t directly served by the King Street Center but who have an interest in learning to ride and care for horses.
For example, in the past year, a family with two dedicated riders that previously attended the King Street Center moved to Winooski, putting them outside of the boundaries for enrollment.
Additional grants and scholarships could help increase accessibility for such families as well as for kids from Charlotte, Shelburne, Hinesburg and other nearby towns who might take an interest in riding, but cannot afford it.
Donations can take several forms from funds to gear such as boots and riding helmets.
“It will take a village,” MacDonald said.
Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.