I feel exceedingly fortunate to have grown up with horses as a big part of my childhood. I was brought up in suburban Westchester County, New York, about 20 minutes from prime horse country. I started regular riding lessons and showing when I was about 10. At age 14, I began competing in the Olympic sport of Three Day Eventing -- a horse triathlon that combines dressage, cross country, and stadium jumping. My thoroughbred, Rush, and I worked as a team -- training daily, building a partnership, testing our skills, persevering through disappointments and injuries. Horse people can describe at length the many valuable life lessons we learn from these amazing animals. Those skills and experiences hold the most weight for me as I look back on my international competitions and time spent working for top professionals.
But following my freshman year of college, I began a long break from horses. At Dartmouth, I became increasingly passionate about using the advantages I had been given to expand opportunities for others. I joined Teach For America, which placed me in Detroit in the fall of 2012. Continuing my hiatus from horses gave me the space to reflect on what I had learned from them. At the same time, TFA and other influences (including Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed) clearly articulated the importance of social-emotional skills to support academic and career success. As I worked to teach my students grit, self-control, and self-efficacy, I became increasingly conscious of how horses had contributed to my growth and development along these same dimensions.
The other factor that got me thinking about bringing horses to the city is Detroit’s abundance of vacant land. While I have enjoyed living on the edges of Detroit’s booming downtown core, there has been little investment in outlying neighborhoods, like where my students live. Vacant land harbors pests, trash, and crime, burdens residents with maintenance responsibilities, and lowers property values. It has been one of many factors stifling opportunity for Detroiters. And so I allowed myself to dream about repurposing vacant land for a new urban riding center here, and learned more about the research-based, therapeutic effects of urban riding programs in other cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
At the end of my second year of teaching, I made the difficult decision to leave my students in order to pursue my innovative social venture. For me, it was an idea whose time had come.
Detroit Horse Power incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in spring of 2015. We launched that summer with two five-day summer camps for 18 youth at partnering horse barns outside Detroit. We are scaling up this year with six weeks of summer camps serving 75 kids. We teach riding and horse care, and bring in guest speakers as a way to broaden students’ horizons and promote social-emotional growth. Our ultimate goal is to translate the gains participants make with the horses to their day-to-day lives. We hope to build their confidence to take academic risks, help them learn non-violent conflict resolution, nurture resilience, and foster other success skills.
My experiences as a teacher led directly to where Detroit Horse Power is today. One of my former students comes to mind regularly. At the age of 10 he explained that he was running with a gang because those were the only guys in his life who would play football with him. He has been a part of Detroit Horse Power’s first two seasons of summer camps, and is a natural horse person. The horses connect with his calm confidence -- they are prey animals, looking for someone to lead their herd in the event of a threat. With consistent time, attention, and commitment, this student and many others like him could develop these natural leadership talents to help them thrive in school and in life. These camps are made possible through community partnerships with Detroit-based schools and nonprofits that recruit students, as well as facility partners that generously allow us to use their space and their horses. The modest budget we have raised from grants and donations allows us to offer all programs for free. But with our primary partner facility more than 30 miles from the city, transportation remains a limiting factor in this pilot stage of our programming.
So, our Next Idea is to pursue the goal of building a new facility within Detroit’s city limits that transforms the burden of vacant land into a community asset. As we navigate the city approval process, Detroit Horse Power is exploring six sites that have sufficient open space, uncontaminated soil, and neighborhood support for horses. They include an abandoned golf course, demolished schools, and dormant city park land. We also plan to increase our financial sustainability and fill a need in the metro-Detroit equestrian community by offering horse boarding and local events at our future space. This earned income will ensure we are not dependent on philanthropy to cover our facility operating expenses.
This synergy brings another benefit. As an adult, I realize the impact that being an equestrian in an affluent, white, homogenous community had on my development. As a young person, I didn’t have the words or experiences to articulate it, but I knew that this exclusive environment had detrimental effects. I understand now that this de facto segregation cuts communities off from diverse points of view and reinforces bias. These barriers of privilege also limit access to horses to society’s wealthiest people, preventing low-income and urban kids from benefiting from these amazing animals. Our project will create a safe space for regional horse lovers and Detroit residents to meet and build relationships that so often can’t form across the city-suburb and racial divide.
To move closer to this vision, we are working with city government to support a new urban livestock ordinance that allows other animals like horses to be approved on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, we will continue to engage community stakeholders around our prospective sites while preparing for our capital campaign to fund property acquisition and facility construction.
I passionately believe in this proposal, because horses are so uniquely suited to impact key areas that will shape the future of our city and region -- expanding opportunity for at-risk urban youth, adding community-focused vacant land revitalization solutions, and building bridges across lines of difference. Together with the many partners who have lifted up our work, we look forward to adding more horse power to strengthen the Motor City’s future.
David Silver is the founder of Detroit Horse Power.