“Dear Ms. Almagor,” he wrote. “Have you decided yet about putting me on the riding team?”
Everyday for a week, the 7th grade student in Lelac Almagor’s English class asked a similar question, his notes to the urban, charter-school English teacher revealing a passion for horses the city kid probably never knew he had. Certainly, kids in his neighborhood rarely went horseback riding on weekends, Almagor says.
But his zeal for an imagined horse is something Almagor understood only too well.
After all, just a few years earlier she had purchased her first horse. She renamed her new off-track Thoroughbred who raced under the name Cuban Fever, with a moniker befitting her long wait for a horse: He became Someday Boy.
Race name: Cuban Fever
New name: Someday Boy
Dam: Yemaya Achaba
Foal Date: 2003
“Whenever people would ask if I owned a horse yet, I would say, ‘Someday, of course.’ When I bought him two years ago, I started calling him Someday Boy.”
For the boy in her class, Terry, there was not so much of a wait.
She assigned one of four places in the extracurricular Saturday program to him, and as with other students in the high-performing, college-preparatory school KIPP DC, the Hideaway Horse Center has become a place where hidden talents and ambitions have flourished. The experience of working with 1,200-pound animals has inspired bravery and leadership skills in kids who escape the city limits to participate in the KIPP DC Riding Team.
“The students have learned that when you’re with horses you have to be the boss,” she says. “You can’t be tentative. You have to make decisions, and be brave.”
Watching her students take command of their horses while gaining confidence in themselves has been deeply rewarding for their teacher.
While all students have exceeded her expectations in so many ways, the young letter writer, Terry, and a young girl, Patrice, have really blossomed at the barn.
“Terry has become our most hardcore and committed rider. Riding is something he can bring his full personality to, and he’s definitely our strongest rider on the team,” Almagor says. “And Patrice is another student who has lit up at the barn.”
So full of energy and a can-do spirit that inspires her to always volunteer to go first, Patrice has become a star student on the team.
“She is an absolute leader now. She’s just a kid I can count on, and her performance with horses has changed my level of expectation of her in the classroom, because I know what she can do—I know the energy and the joy she’s got.”
Almagor founded the KIPP DC riding team four years ago in collaboration with Hideaway Horse Center in Brandywine, Md., to forge teamwork and independence in students, via an activity that few had ever had the opportunity to take up.
“Almost nobody in the urban communities where my students come from has done anything like this,” Almagor says. “So it’s a pretty big deal to students to get to try.”
The idea came to Almagor one day after a ride. The longtime equestrian mentioned her wish to Hideaway’s owner Regina Salta, and without hesitation was told the barn would make it happen for the kids.
Shortly thereafter, the owner made lesson horses available on busy Saturdays, and when she noticed some kids didn’t have warm gloves, she personally bought them, Almagor says. “I’ll never forget it. I was talking with Gina about the kids, and how I wished I could introduce them to riding, and she said, ‘We’ll find a way.’ ”
Now four years later, the program is thriving. Two Saturdays a month, she meets her students at the barn. Most are driven by volunteers from the city 30 minutes away, to participate in lessons at the stable.
And she only shows students how to do something once. It is a ‘thing’ with Almagor that they learn quickly. “The first day, I’ll pick up the horse’s hooves for them and show them how to pick them out, and I’ll get the bridle and show them how to put that on. But that’s it. After that, it’s up to them to help each other,” she says.
Students catch on quickly.
“One thing that has amazed me, and I couldn’t figure out at first, was how much better they got between lessons,” Almagor says. “I’d show a kid how to post one week, and the next time they came out, they had gotten it down. They learned much faster than I would have expected.”
Amalgor believes that her students think about riding so much in between lessons, going over and over the details in their minds, that when they finally climb back in the saddle, they’re able to master the technique they learned in the previous lesson.
Just as she understands why a young boy would write to her everyday about the riding team, she also understands how a day at the barn can capture and ignite the imagination.
For Almagor, it was a grumpy gelding who got her spellbound.
Cuban Fever came in to her life to lay up at her friend Ilkim Boyle’s barn. While recovering from an injury over eight months, Almagor made friends with the horse.
“He was so cranky. He hated being groomed, or being loved,” she says.
When he’d recovered, Almagor began riding the horse, after work, often in the pitch dark. A small light over the barn did little to light the yard where she rode, but Almagor and the gelding pressed on with their practice.
As she taught the horse, Almagor also began to wish she could buy him. “The idea of having my own horse is so completely wrapped up with the idea of owning him.”
She bought Someday Boy two years ago, and is still pinching herself. So it isn’t a stretch for her to understand a boy who would write to her everyday to ask to be on the riding team, or a young girl who lights up whenever she places her hand on a soft muzzle.
“I’ve found a lot of kids secretly dreamed about horses since they were little kids, but the closest they’ve ever gotten to them was to see them on TV, or read about them in books.”
But reality for this teacher and for her lucky students is better than they could have possibly imagined.