By Brandon Krause
A child is crying, in fear of the six foot tall beast that stands before him. He has only ever seen pictures and heard stories of this creature, and to see it in person is overwhelming. The animal snorts and paws at the ground, and the child’s fears are intensified. Two hours later, that same child is all smiles and begging to spend more time with the animal that caused so much initial fear. The transformation is possible because of Sarah Williams, and her horse Dusty.
Dusty’s Riders was founded in 2001 by Williams. After watching a television program in which Rosie O’Donnell and Mark McGuire were discussing helping kids, she was inspired to ask God if she had a calling in helping children. Williams’ inspiration was answered with the realization that her lifelong dream of owning a horse could be used to reach the kids she desired to help. With so many horse riding organizations already in place to aid disabled people, she felt the need to assist at-risk children.
Working with 10 organizations, including the Dream Center, Living Proof Ministries, and six different Boys & Girls Club chapters, Dusty’s has reached out to more than 1,000 children in its 10-year existence. Its mission is to remove these kids from their present environment, and show them how to open their borders and experience a world outside their everyday lives.
Dusty’s main star is Dusty, a mild and loving horse that Williams got from a friend. The children spend an hour with Dusty to grow comfortable around horses and learn some terminology. This is followed by an hour ride through Griffith Park that the kids absolutely love.
During day trips to Santa Barbara, some kids see the ocean for the first time, despite living within 20 miles from it. By breaking down boundaries and having the kids face their fears, Williams and her volunteers instill self-confidence and joy into children that otherwise would not have the means to do these things on their own.
The main way kids are taught confidence is through the concept of “cowboy up.” When kids are visibly scared, they’re taught that even cowboys get scared around these animals, but they confront their fears and mount up anyway. Most kids are timid and shy around the horses at first, but after learning to cowboy up, they act like old pros in the saddle, showcasing their newfound skills with confidence and excitement. The kids are also given buttons with the phrase printed on them to remind them once they leave Dusty’s they can cowboy up away from the ranch, and almost every child asks if they can return to ride again.
For Williams and Michelle Smith, a board member and former volunteer, payment comes in the form of the “warm fuzzies” from seeing the happy children at the end of the day. “I get paid in giggles and smiles… When you give of yourself, you get so much more back,” says Williams. Smith says that the most rewarding part of working with Dusty’s is watching the transformation in the kids. Most of these kids are not usually around positive adult role models, and the exposure to loving and caring adults brings about a big change in their behavior.
Manny, a teen from the Dream Center, is one example. Smith shared the story of how Manny would always hang in the back of the group, looking uninterested and bored. Taking Manny aside, she explained how meeting Dusty and going on the ride was a privilege and other people were devoting time and money so he could have that opportunity. Manny’s attitude immediately turned, and his actions reflected that by his becoming more helpful and assertive.
One particular story summarizes what Dusty’s is all about. One night in June, Williams received a phone call from a woman named Julie, who had been getting Dusty’s newsletter, but was not sure why. She decided to attend an outing with her daughter, Jesse, to see if they would be interested in volunteering. The kids attending the outing were from Living Proof Ministries, an organization that helps children whose parents are or were in prison.
Richard was one of these kids, and his parents had just been arrested the previous night. Due to this unfortunate circumstance, he only had a pair of sandals to wear. Because of the safety issues this presented, he was only allowed limited contact with the horses, until Jesse stepped up and offered to carry Richard piggyback so he could lead Dusty around and not be left out. When it came time to mount up, the lack of shoes appeared to prevent Richard from participating again. This time, Julie came to the rescue, meeting the group at the stables with a brand new pair of shoes and socks for Richard.
A piggyback ride and a pair of shoes might not sound like much, but Dusty’s has a habit of taking small things and making big impacts. The two hours or so the kids spend at the ranch helps to develop a lifetime of dreams and confidence. Smith says that changing the world starts with changing our kids. Helping children that might be on the wrong path find a way toward a positive future helps strengthen our communities, and in turn, our world, Smith said. Smith also says that taking that fear they first experience and helping them face it teaches them that they have the strength to overcome obstacles in the real world, and that fear should not stop them from experiencing things they would otherwise shy away from.
In addition to helping the kids, Dusty’s helps the volunteers and people in charge as well. Smith and Williams both attest to the psychological therapy being on a horse presents, and claim that volunteering is a great way to relax, meet new people, and broaden their horizons.
Williams had zero experience concerning non-profit organizations when she decided to start Dusty’s, but that did not stop her. Instead of succumbing to the fear of the unknown, she bought a book on non-profits and taught herself everything she needed to know. Scared at first, she climbed into the saddle and started riding, shed her fear as she went, and learned to enjoy the ride that Dusty’s Riders has taken her on, just as all the kids she’s touched have. That’s what it means to cowboy up.