Chances are, if you’ve been to the Children’s Farm at The Center in the last two decades, you’ve seen Mabel and Dunne. The two horses have been working members at the farm for 20 years, having arrived about the same time.
“Mabel has probably conservatively given a ride to more than 4,000 children,” said program director Amy DiDominicis. “We call her ‘stable Mabel.’ She is very affectionate.”
Their longevity at the farm, however, highlights a real problem: Of the 21 horses that live and work there, only three are younger than 16. And although the nonprofit organization would like to have a few new younger horses, their price has skyrocketed in the last two years, which puts that goal out of reach.
Dave Sanders, executive director at The Center, said the pandemic is likely the reason the cost has gone up so much, with people turning into riding horses as a good recreational activity when other activities were unavailable.
“We’re astounded that horse prices are through the roof. Actually they have gone up 300%,” he said. “You used to be able to get a decent riding horse for children for about $2,000. That was a decent price. That $2,000 horse is now a $6,000 horse.”
It’s the same story in southern Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. “Horse prices in the Midwest are just inflated,” he said.
That’s why he and DiDominicis are turning into the public, hoping a few people will be willing to give their horse a new home at The Children’s Farm, 12700 Southwest Highway in Palos Hills, or contribute to a fund set aside to buy them. For details about either option, call (708) 361-3650 and ask for Sanders or DiDominicis.
“Working, child safe, non-complicated horses. If I could buy horses, that is what I’d tell people,” DiDominicis said. “We really want horses that can fit right into the program. Their medical condition is important, their dietary needs, their living situation. Not all horses want to be turned out like ours are. We want to make sure the horse fits into the style of life we do here.
“And what has a horse’s work life been recently?” she continued. “A lot of time they might have sat in the person’s backyard for five or six years and have lost their body condition and their manners. …. They start to show their aches and pain.”
DiDominicis said they need to find “the right personality of horse that thrives in this environment” for a horse to fit in.
“You’d be surprised. Some horses thrive on the work, the kids, someone fussing over them, to be brushed and bathed,” she said. “Most of our horses do really thrive on that. That is why they’ve been there that long. It just works.”
“We’re looking for working horses that have been ridden,” Sanders added. “Maybe if they haven’t ridden in the last year, we could (train them).”
Horses have been an integral part of The Center since the nonprofit organization was created in 1932. They first came to do field work, move large and heavy items, and haul wagons — until the early 1940s when an old Allis-Chalmers tractor was donated.
Eventually a herd of six horses became “an integral part” of the camping program, according to The Center’s latest newsletter, and “every child who came to camp rode a horse.” Their role expanded in the early 1960s with the introduction of Ranch Camp, a two-week overnight adventure on horseback for teenagers, who learned how to ride and care for a horse.
During the pandemic, “everything slowed down” and only a less-intense daytime camp was offered. Because overnight camp will resume this summer, finding a few younger horses is very important and somewhat urgent.
It’s too hard on the older horses to work all day, DiDominicis said. Although campers will be there from Sunday through Friday, horses will have duties only Monday to Friday, so they can rest up on the weekends.
“Summer camp is our busiest workload for the horses, so we try not to have horses work more than one session,” she said. “Two-hour lesson bracket in the morning, two-hour lesson brackets in the afternoon or the team’s trail ride. (“That could be six hours!” Sanders interjected.)
“The athletic horses who are in good shape thrive on the long trail rides,” she said. “That’s what they do the best. It’s in the last few years where we have such a load of seniors that it’s challenging for some.”
She said they try to find less strenuous work for their oldest horses.
“That is part of our situation right now. Because we have these seniors who have worked so hard for us, we’re trying …. to find low-intensity duties for (Mabel). She can be a good companion for a work horse. We need them to work with them. Instead of doing advanced lessons, she will be the beginning teacher who will be teaching (riders) how to walk, stop and steer instead of cantering and going on a long trail ride.”
Sanders said at The Center, “horses are about giving young children an experience they’ll remember forever.
“I grew up on horses and grew up at camp,” he said. “I remember the horses and trail ride and my bunkmates. I had some of the best times on horseback. Oftentimes people forget names of people but they always remember their horse.”
The core of the camping program has always been horseback riding and all that entails, he said.
“We put children and teenagers on horses, and we find that they are a wonderful vehicle to teach trust, responsibility and respect. Those are the big ones. Just think of it — you’re a 90-pound teenager and you’re riding a thousand-plus-pound animal. That’s pretty powerful.”
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DiDominicis agreed the camp is about more than just learning to ride.
“It’s the personal growth, risk taking, adventure, the bigger picture that they can see by having this experience about the environment and nature and everything about communication and trust and responsibility,” she said, adding a quote by Winston Churchill: “The outside of the horse is good for the inside of a man.”
“When kids overcome their fears or are able to do something that they didn’t think was possible, how that translates into their regular life, I think that’s when the true benefit unfolds,” she said.
Sanders hopes word will spread about the need for younger horses at The Center, both among those who know about the camp because they or their children attended it and strangers who want to do a good deed.
“Oftentimes people who want to get rid of their horse don’t want to take it to a sale. There are all sorts of nasty things that can happen at a sale,” he said.
“Here you can donate it to The Center and get a tax write-off and also see your horse. The vet care at our facility is exemplary. That person can go to bed at night knowing their horse is well cared for and loved.”
Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.