- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - On a Friday afternoon earlier this month, six horses trotted around the rim of the riding arena at Stephens College. Sturdy hooves padded the dirt as riders made precise clucking noises to guide them. The dimly lit arena was about the size of a track, and horses and riders walked, trotted and cantered in unison.

The riders are part of Stephens College Equestrian Studies program, which is growing and reaching out to the community. Stephens announced this fall that its Community Riding Program will be offered year-round, instead of just during the summer. For students, it gives them another out-of-classroom experience.

“They want you when you go out in the world to be well-rounded,” sophomore Gabby Ault-Zimmermann told the Missourian (https://bit.ly/1GyIVpt ). “They definitely prepare you for life and the world you want to take on.”

Ault-Zimmermann was among the riders on that recent Friday, motivating KJM The Prodigal to perfect his trot through a mix of clucking and using her legs to push him forward.

She won Saddle & Bridle’s Shatner Western Pleasure National Finals in St. Louis in September.

Ault-Zimmermann started riding when her grandpa put her on a horse when she was 2 years old. She started riding by herself when she was 5, then started showing when she was 6.

Growing up, she rode at a barn close to home in Oak Brook, Illinois. She decided to go to Stephens College to pursue an equestrian career.

“Every day I come here, I feel like I’m home,” Ault-Zimmermann said.

She said that at Stephens, the teachers are helpful and the college offers a variety of riding styles such as Saddleseat or Western. Saddleseat is judged on how the rider performs, which is seen through the horse’s movement. Western is judged on how the rider controls the horse through walking, trotting and cantering and more difficult moves like stopping and turns.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, she also is a teaching tech and shows her peers how to ride better. After graduating, she wants to teach therapeutic riding.

“They say that horses are the best medicines,” Ault-Zimmermann said.

She recalled an experience that helped shape her outlook: She was at a camp where there was a boy who would not speak to anyone except his mother, to whom he would give only the barest responses. After two months of riding, Ault-Zimmermann and her co-workers told the boy that he needed to talk - if he didn’t, his horse would not know where to go.

“We eventually got him to talk, and now he speaks full words and he loves it,” Ault-Zimmermann said. “You can definitely see the improvement in the kids.”

She thinks offering year-round riding to the community will be beneficial to children who want to ride and be more social. The program has grown from about 26 students to about 52, she said.

“We have new horses, we have a bigger everything, and we’re just building up, which is great,” Ault-Zimmermann said.

Part of the build-up is making the Community Riding Program available year-round. Sarah Denninghoff, director of community riding and a Western instructor, said riders in the program wanted lessons to continue throughout the year.

Riders 8 years and older can ride and receive college-quality instruction from Denninghoff or student teachers. The program sells blocks of six lessons, each two hours, for $375.

“We are always interested in trying to develop stronger ties with the community, so this seemed like a really great way to get more involved,” Denninghoff said. “It also offers our students the opportunity to teach people other than their peers, which is what they’ll be doing when they go to work.”

Junior Margaret Sheldon teaches community riding Wednesdays and Fridays and has helped teach adult women and 10- to 15-year-olds. She said it was interesting to see how Stephens horses worked with non-college students.

“I feel like some of the programs where it’s just cut and dry, everyone comes out the same,” Sheldon said. “But I think we make a lot of unique horse people here, and you can go a lot further pushing yourself to do well here.”

Sheldon said teaching helps her improve her own riding and improve her interpersonal skills.

“I think when you teach other people something, it helps you remember to do it when you’re riding,” Sheldon said. “Seeing where they’re struggling can help you find out where you’re struggling, so you can improve.”

Even on the days she doesn’t teach, Sheldon often finds herself back at Stephens Equestrian Center.

Originally from Cincinnati, Sheldon started riding seriously when she got to Stephens. When she was searching for an equestrian program, she said she did not initially want to visit because Stephens is a women’s college and in Missouri. But when she visited, she fell in love with the barn atmosphere.

“You feel like you’re in the middle of the country, but you’re right in the middle of the city,” Sheldon said. “It felt really homey as soon as I came to visit.”

Sheldon does not know where her future lies but said Stephens Equestrian Studies program has had strong success in job placement so she’s confident she will find something that she’ll want to do.

“I’ve been struggling with that, trying to find one (a job after college),” Sheldon said. “Anything with horses.”


Information from: Columbia Missourian, https://www.columbiamissourian.com

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