Kelci Mossat prepares a horse to ride.

Taking the Reins: Teaching Life Skills through Horseback Riding, Urban Farming, and the L.A. River

The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative. For more information visit the website www.mylariver.org


Behind the rows of unsuspecting middle class homes in Atwater Village resides a different kind of community, filled not with Spanish bungalows and apartment homes -- but with barns, stables, and horses.

The Atwater Village equestrian community is home to private horse stables and riding clubs, the LAPD Mounted Platoon, and Taking the Reins, a nonprofit that teaches "life skills to middle and high-school girls primarily through horse care and riding," according to their website. They also have an urban farming program, where the girls learn how to grow and cook their own vegetables.

"The ultimate goal is to get the girls that come through this program to emerge as leaders in their community and beyond," says Janiene Langford, Taking the Reins' program director. "A big piece of that is having an ownership of this area, an ownership of this land."

Unlike many equestrian or youth-focused nonprofits that teach independence through the environment and animals, Taking the Reins has one unique feature -- they are located right on the L.A. River.

"We are trying to get girls to have a sense of empowerment, and part of that is a sense of empowerment about the natural environment," Langford says. "So the Los Angeles River is a really good place for [the girls] to see what L.A. is capable of ... and that there actually is a natural environment that we have to care for."

In order to convey to the girls the importance of the surrounding natural environment, a component of Taking the Reins' urban gardening program is a guided walk of the L.A. River.

"Who has been to the L.A. River before?" Colleen Hennessey, a riding instructor and urban farm manager at Taking the Reins, asked a group of teenage girls one morning.

The girls looked at each other and then to Hennessey. They stood quietly, fidgeting. No one raised their hand.

On their first L.A. River walk the girls were asked to write a journal entry about their experience.

The girls listen to Colleen Hennessey, a riding instructor and the urban farm manager talk about the history of The L.A. River.

Hennessey, with a smile on her face, was not surprised. Many people in Los Angeles have never spent time by the river due to various reasons, Hennessey said. And the girls participating in Taking the Reins are no exception.

But now, due to the growing revitalization efforts around the area, the river is becoming more accessible to residents. Just a few miles away from Taking the Reins there is a new recreation zone, where people can legally kayak down the L.A. River. Hennessey said that because of this many Angelenos are finally starting to discover the river, although many are still unaware of its presence.

After making sure that all the girls put on a layer of sunscreen, Hennessey led the girls through the horse stable, then through the garden, and to the back of the property. There, on the other side of the gate, is the L.A. River.

Along the river is a dirt path that pedestrians and people on horse-back can enjoy. At the edge of the path is a somewhat steep concrete decline, which goes directly into the river. Unlike other parts of the river that are encased in concrete, the bottom of this stretch is soft and greenery is sprouting through.

"Some say it's as close as you can get to what the river originally looked like," Hennessey says.

Walking along the river, Hennessey points out the different wild life and the many types of birds that call the L.A. River home. She asks the girls to take a moment and reflect on what the L.A. River once was, in addition to what it is becoming. The girls than take a seat on the concrete decline and scribble their thoughts in a journal.

After an hour Hennessey is ready to lead the girls back to the Taking the Reins property, where they take a lunch break and prepare for equine science and some urban gardening.

But the strange mix of nature and urban sprawl sticks with the girls throughout their experience at Taking the Reins. In fact many of the girls, after the tour of the river, become excited about where they live, Hennessey says.

"Even though the L.A. River is in concrete, it still has a lot of nature ... The girls actually feel that they are really far away from the city," Hennessey says. "I think there is a little bit of fantasy you have to have because you hear the freeway and you see the concrete."

Leslie Galban, 16, says she originally joined the program because of the lure of the horses, but was surprised when she learned she had to garden and take a tour of the river too.

"When we found out there was gardening we were a little bit confused, we didn't know what it would be like," Galban says. "Then we got into it and some of us like it better than the horses."

For other girls, like Alyssa Hunter Forester, 15, who has been an active participant in Taking the Reins for over four years, the river has become an integral part of her experience at the organization, which she calls her second home.

"I like to go down [to the river] and I find a place to hide," Forester says. "I just sit down there and read ... it's a good, calm place."

Many of the girls in Taking the Reins are inner-city girls, who know too much about the harsh realities of gangs and drugs, Forester says. And for the girls the program is a place where nature and animals meet a familiar urban backdrop; most of all Taking the Reins is their escape.

"What I like about this place if that you can be yourself," Stacie Mercado, 16, said about Taking the Reins. "Some places you have to hide certain parts of you, but here you are welcome to be anyone you want to be."

Later this summer the city is expected break ground on the North Atwater Bridge that will run across the L.A. River and will connect Griffith Park and the equestrian community. The bridge will make the trek across the river more convenient and safer for the horses.

Taking the Reins is also currently considering selling a portion of their iconic stable, which was built in 1938. According to Langford, the property is much too big for the program and too costly to maintain; they have no plans to close or reduce their program however.

Taking the Reins moved to their current location in Atwater Village in 2008.

In addition to learning how to ride the girls are also taught how to take care of the horses.

Colleen Hennessey working on the urban garden.

Alyssa Hunter Forester sitting in the urban garden.

Stacie Mercado standing by the horse stall.

Leslie Galban on The L.A. River.

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