The young riders weren’t exactly off to the races at Relational Riding Academy in Cheney on a recent Friday morning, but for kids who’d never been on horse, a quick trot around the indoor arena was plenty exciting.
It was the last day of a summer riding camp offered through Spokane Parks and Recreation, and the novice riders’ nerves were soothed by the older kids who accompanied them as they rode.
“All campers are assisted by students who ride here,” said instructor Michelle Binder-Zolezzi. “They are our horse handlers, and help keep our campers safe.”
They are also all volunteers.
“We had a wonderful group of 12 young people who gave up four weeks of their summer to do this,” she said.
And it’s been a busy summer at the riding academy.
“We have almost 100 lessons a week here,” said Binder-Zolezzi.
The older students hold the horse’s bridles while Binder-Zolezzi gives instructions, and they also offer gentle encouragement to the campers. After the lesson, they show the kids how to brush and groom the horses.
The younger campers connect easily with their student helpers. Binder-Zolezzi said one day a 5-year-old had a little “meltdown” at camp.
“Her helper was so incredible with her. I was proud of how she helped the 5-year-old move from meltdown to smiling and laughing,” Binder-Zolezzi said.
Catherine Field, 14, is one of the student volunteers. The St. George’s student said she started riding when her younger sister took lessons, and she quickly fell in love with Binga, one of the rescue horses at the academy.
“She has a great personality – very talented and very stubborn,” Catherine said.
Her parents ended up buying Binga for her, and Catherine is training to compete in the Western Dressage World Championship in Oklahoma next month.
“Riding makes me feel good. It’s a great stress reliever,” Catherine said.
Korbin Eckert, 14, enjoys helping campers get acquainted with horses.
“I’ve loved horses since I was 2,” Korbin said.
His love of horses has paid off in a big way. The Lewis and Clark student picked up the youth world championship; the youth reserve world championship and a national championship at last year’s Western Dressage World Championships.
“I’m here six days a week riding and training,” he said.
Volunteering at the camp means more time with the horses with the added bonus of watching younger kids catch the riding bug.
“I enjoy seeing them at the start of their riding journey,” Korbin said. “Some of them have never been on a horse. I love watching them warm up.”
His favorite campers are the 5-year-olds.
“They’ll talk your ear off,” he said, grinning.
Volunteer Fallon Rooney, 11, isn’t that far removed from her first time on a horse.
“I was kinda nervous,” Fallon said. “I’d never been on such a big animal.”
Now, like Korbin, she’s at the riding academy six days a week.
“I learn something new every single day,” said Fallon, a St. George’s student. “And I think horses are just amazing. I enjoy seeing the younger campers have so much fun. I’d be here 24/7 if I could.”
Simone Shears, 15, agreed.
The Lewis and Clark student said, “I come here to get away from the stress and drama of school. Riding is so relaxing for me.”
Like her fellow volunteers, she loves watching younger kids interact with the horses.
“They’re so cute,” Shears said. “And this is something they’ll always remember.”
To be clear, the volunteer gig isn’t glamorous.
“Our kids are so urbanized,” Binder-Zolezzi said. “They’re so far removed from manure and flies. This is the real thing.”
That’s why she’s so appreciative and amazed by the willingness of her 12 young assistants to leave air-conditioning and video games behind, to help introduce younger kids to the joy of riding.
“These kids are the future of our community,” she said. “They inspire me every day.”
This story has been reposted to correct a photo caption. A photo shows 8-year-old Maddie Cathcart riding a horse with the assistance of a volunteer at Relational Riding Academy in Cheney, Wash. Maddie’s age was stated incorrectly in the caption.
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