Horse Power: Ellen Downey
At her Youthdale Riding Program in Hockley Valley, kids learn a lot more than how to ride.
Ellen Downey: One of our 2019 Local Heroes
With its sweeping vista overlooking Hockley Valley, Jewel View farm is home to Ellen Downey, her husband, Jim, about 24 horses and the Youthdale Riding Program. Launched in 2001, YRP has since taught more than 1,500 young people to ride – with a lesson or two about life thrown in.
Trained in child psychology and social work, Ellen has devoted her entire career to at-risk adolescents. Some of the young people in the YRP are involved with child protection services, some are afflicted by addiction and others are in the LGBTQ+ community. Ellen has a particular soft spot for all these young people because, though a variety of programs exist for youth, “nobody tends to feel sorry for these kids. Maybe they have tattoos, or piercings, or look different because they wear a tough exterior to protect themselves.” Though participants’ backgrounds are diverse, they share similar emotional and behavioural struggles; hence the at-risk designation.
Ellen first tuned in to the power of equine therapy in Calgary in 1990, when a colleague at the day-treatment school where she worked suggested taking a group of rough-and-tumble kids riding. Initially skeptical, she was in for a surprise. “The most aggressive kids went the slowest and were really gentle with the horses,” she says.
At YRP weekly riding lessons take place over a 10-week period. Riders are matched with their own horse and a volunteer, and are responsible for grooming and tacking the horse before the lesson. A debriefing session afterward offers a chance to discuss accomplishments and challenges, as well as to set goals for the next lesson. At the end of the sessions, riders put on a final performance modelled on the RCMP Musical Ride.
Though the goal is to help riders feel successful and empowered, the real magic comes from the bond that develops between horse and rider. “Horses offer unconditional love,” says Ellen. “It’s about that feeling of acceptance.”
Two of the horses are retired from RCMP performance duties. One had a long career in the RCMP Musical Ride and the other helped pull the RCMP’s official landau, used by royalty, including the Queen when she visited Ottawa. “I like to think she gave him a nose rub,” says Ellen.
Ellen is effusive in her praise of the 20 or so local volunteers who work with her to deliver the program to four groups a week. She is also grateful to the horse community for contributions, both financial and material. Olympic-level riders, for example, have volunteered to supportively judge final performances, and Mono veterinarian Dr. Usha Knabe donates chiropractic care.
A registered charity that operates under the umbrella of Youthdale Treatment Centres, the program relies on private and corporate donors. An annual clothing and furniture fundraising sale is held at Coffey Creek Farm in Caledon the first Saturday in June. Ellen draws no salary herself, and her all-female barn staff is paid by Jewel View. She estimates it costs about $12,500 a year to keep each horse. Because the horses are usually older, they may require special supplements and extra farrier work, dental and vet care.
The program currently serves more than 120 young people annually, but the referring agencies would like to send more, so Ellen has set her sights on expansion. “We hope to double that number,” she says.
What makes it all worth it? Ellen sums it up in the words of one of the kids: “I learned that I am not afraid of everything, nor am I fearless. I have courage.”
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