By Martin Ricard, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
July 26, 2009
Thirteen-year-old Jennifer Jones and 12-year-old Johnice Patterson slowly approached with a large leather bridle over their heads as the horse jerked away.
“Ru-pert,” Jennifer said in gentle rebuke as she struggled to show Johnice, a novice, how to properly bridle a horse. For some reason, Rupert was uncooperative.
Their instructor, Lelac Almagor, stood a few feet back, arms crossed and smiling.
“The hardest thing for me is not being able to help them,” she said, chuckling, before Jennifer and Johnice finally got the bridle on. It’s one of the many jobs they have to do each day before being able to climb on a horse’s back.
This is the KIPP AIM Academy equestrian team. Most of the students live in Southeast Washington and come from families of meager means, which would typically make horse riding — an expensive habit — off-limits.
But in two years, Almagor, an English teacher at the charter middle school who started the equestrian program, has managed to forge a sort of magnetic, magical connection between the kids and the horses.
By giving them a new kind of challenge, Almagor said, she has been able to take them beyond the confinements of school and their inner-city environment, all the while building character and drawing them closer to the classroom.
“I think the biggest thing about this is, when you come to school, we try to make the point that there is so much out there in the world for you,” Almagor said, referring to KIPP’s rigorous curriculum, which seeks to prepare all students for college. “We tell them, ‘If you work hard and are open to it, there are all kinds of adventures you can have. There’s nothing you can’t do.’ And this is a way of making that real.”
The program was inspired by Almagor’s passion for horses. While growing up in Stamford, Conn., she spent weekends riding horses in a nearby stable, which allowed her to develop her intensity and release her energy. She said that almost as soon as she started teaching at AIM Academy two years ago, she was interested in starting a program that did the same thing for her students.
Almagor had a friend who volunteered at Hideaway Horse Center in Brandywine. The center agreed to host the students at a reduced cost and donate riding clothes. Not every student gets to suit up, because there’s not enough gear for everyone.
Although the team has lost two members since it began, seven students — five girls and two boys — remain committed. The team hasn’t participated in any competitions, but Almagor hopes to do so in the near future. And some students have found a new passion.
Jennifer was so inspired by horse riding that she wants to compete professionally when she gets older. She was accepted at a boarding school in Maryland where she could pursue her riding dream, but, even with financial aid, her family could not afford it.
When she started, she was afraid of horses. During her first attempt at getting on a horse, she said, she nervously climbed on backward. “It’s not that scary anymore,” she said.
It also makes her unique among friends.
“When you go home, you don’t really have people saying, ‘We’re going out to go horse riding,’ ” Jennifer said. “So it’s a little different.”
On Saturday, she demonstrated her progress by trying something she had just learned: prodding Rupert into a slow trot and jumping a crossrail.
Her face lit up, and she threw her right fist in the air in triumph.
Those moments of triumph, however, are balanced by episodes of apprehension. Almagor said some students were scared when she taught them how to prepare for a jump by raising up off the saddle. They whined: “Oh, Lord!” or “This is so uncomfortable.”
Eventually, they get it, as 14-year-old JaQuwan Gillis did Saturday.
Almagor instructed him to get his horse in a slow trot and have it gallop over three poles spread out in a row on the arena ground.
JaQuwan breathed heavily and closed his eyes. On the third attempt, he focused, took a deep breath, sat up straight on the saddle and told himself, “Just try not to close your eyes.”
This time, he kept his head straight and zeroed in on the poles. Then, he and his horse jumped gracefully over them. JaQuwan breathed out a sigh of relief and smiled.