Lawrence Heights students took the reins of a new challenge, that kicked up their confidence, through a partnership between their school, police officers and an equestrian academy.
Five students received eight lessons over two months on how to care for, and ride, horses at the Riding Academy at the Horse Palace alongside 32 Division officers.
“Kids love the horses, so it’s a great icebreaker to be around them,” said Constable Ali Rezvani who, himself, took the two-week training course for Mounted officers. “It was the best two weeks I’ve ever had, so I thought it would be great to give kids a similar opportunity they might not otherwise have.”
Riding Academy instructors led the lessons that included visits from their veterinarian and farrier, who cares for hooves, as well as practical experience grooming and caring for the horses in their stable.
ProAction Cops & Kids, a non-profit agency that funds youth programs with police officers, also sponsored the program.
It’s another opportunity for officers to mentor young people said Neighbourhood Officers Constables Ricardo Burke and Omar McDoom, whose job it is to connect with social agencies, schools and residents in Lawrence Heights.
“It starts off with them learning about horses but, afterwards, we can sit down to a meal and have an open dialogue about what they thought of the program and we can talk about jobs associated to horse management, life skills and leave our mark with them,” McDoom says. “We teach them about life skills, values and give our influence and they teach us. It’s a positive interaction that they can speak about when someone is talking about the police.”
McDoom says he doesn’t want the police to be associated only with making arrests.
“We’re also part of the community, trying to make it better, and provide opportunities for them to identify what they need,” he says.
“We want to build a relationship and build trust,” Rezvani says.
Lawrence Heights Middle School principal David deBelle, said his students have benefited from hockey, cooking and other police programs, while officers have had the chance to become familiar faces in their school.
“They get a positive experience with police, they get a positive experience out of the program and, perhaps, learn something they’d like to continue on doing,” says deBelle. “Officers get to know kids, their siblings and parents in the community, so it’s a win-win all over the place.”
And because Lawrence Heights is a place where violent crime has occurred frequently in the past, this relationship is important.
“For Lawrence Heights, community safety is an issue for sure so, for the officers to be able to do their jobs to protect the community, to serve the community, they need to know the kids and the kids need to know the officers,” deBelle says. “When the police cars come rolling up to the school, the assumption isn’t ‘oh what’s going on now what’s the problem.’ Now the kids have a good relationship with the officers, greeting them with ‘Hi Ricky, Hi Omar’ and they have a positive relationship.”
It was a first for Malik Jones, 13, to care for, and ride, a horse but, eight weeks later, he was alone in a stable, readying Vinny for a ride in the Horse Palace ring.
“When the horse is bigger, like this one, it tries to bully you,” he says, while keeping a steady hand on the large black horse as he brushed his coat and strapped on the saddle. “You have to be confident.”
His impression of police officers has also changed through these programs from what he has heard to what he’s seen himself.
“They’re not really what you think they would be. You see a stereotype about how police are bad, how you shouldn’t trust police. I’ve seen them on a one-on-one basis and they’re not like that. They’re friendly, giving and helpful,” he says.
Stable manager Amanda Melinz said she’s seen a dramatic change in the group of kids who showed up in running shoes on day one, to ones leading their horses in dusty boots at their final lesson that ended with a presentation of certificates and ribbons to the students.
“It’s confidence with the animal. They never had to deal with any large animal before and you can see they are now friends with them,” Melinz says, of the students reassuring the horses. “The more confident you are, the more successful you are, that’s what they want, a confident rider.”
Melinz says that it is a great opportunity for her school to introduce the sport to those who might otherwise not have the chance.
“The most important part of this is introducing students to the sport and the lifestyle. In this city, it’s a great experience.”