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At-risk girls are learning how to ride horses to escape poverty

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Danielle Garcia, 17, knew she had to help her single, immigrant mother somehow. She knew being a good student, behaving and watching TV wasn't going to cut it. The then-shy sixth grader decided to look for horse-riding programs, since they would mean little-to-no human interaction.

"I knew my family in Mexico had horses, and I liked them," said Garcia.

A Google search yielded Taking the Reins, a nonprofit that teaches horseback riding to underprivileged girls in the Los Angeles area.

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Danielle Garcia is in the advanced riding course, which she attends every Sunday.

If a girl can kind of control and take the reins of a thousand-pound animal, that there's something very self-esteem and confidence building about that.
Dr. Jane Haven, executive director of Taking the Reins

“This is a program that’s more than just horses and animals," said Garcia. "It’s a community. It gave me the life skills that I needed to be able to stand up for myself in a world where you need to, especially living in L.A. It gave me the life skills that I need to converse with people and network and get out there.”

The year-round program teaches about 500 local girls a year the ins and outs of horse riding, equine science and urban farming. Taking the Reins says 100% of its students graduate from high school, higher than the 80% graduating rate for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Taking the Reins has been around since 1998, slightly altering its formula since then to include more girls and adding classes on how to run a nonprofit and urban farming. There's a reason the program directors use horses, too.

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Danielle saddles up Scotty, a loaner horse the camp has in town from Scottsdale, Arizona.
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"Their whole philosophy," says executive director Dr. Jane Haven, referring to the founders, "was that if a girl can kind of control and take the reins of a thousand-pound animal, that there's something very self-esteem and confidence building about that."

Studies show equine-assisted psychotherapy helps adolescents develop self-esteem and personal confidence, especially those who suffer from abuse, according to the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth. Some prisons even use equestrian programs to reduce recidivism, or the rate at which inmates return to prison once they're released. For students like Danielle, Taking the Reins gave her the tools to help her single mother pay the bills.

"This is a program that’s more than just horses and animals. It's a community."
Danielle Garcia, student at Taking the Reins

"I actually remember being small and listening to her in the bathroom trying to hide it from me, crying," said Garcia. "Being stressed that she couldn't pay the bills. She had a lot going on in her life."

The program also helped Danielle get a job at the stables next door, and it gave her the opportunity to fly to Oklahoma, where she won top honors at a regional horse judging competition.

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Danielle (left) and her mom, Mariela, live in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles' Koreatown.

"I'm very proud of my daughter," said Mariela Medrano, Danielle's mother. She usually accompanies her on weekends at the farm.

"This place is magical," she says. "We're away from the city. We feel this tremendous sense of freedom and peace that just doesn't compare."

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The program costs $400 and is open to any girl in L.A. Taking the Reins says about 85% of its students receive full scholarships, and most students come from under-served neighborhoods in L.A. The program is funded by large and small private donors. Dr. Haven, the director, says the program has increased enrollment five-fold, but hasn't increased funding by nearly that much. If you would like to donate to Taking the Reins, you can do so here.

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Danielle has been coming to the farm for six years and now serves as a mentor to new students. The high school senior hopes to go to USC next fall to study medicine.

“I was very introverted when I first got here," said Garcia. "I probably couldn’t be standing here talking to you. Six years ago, I’d be off in a corner somewhere, trying to get away from everything.”

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