By Britney Grover
A single interaction with a horse can change a life; being involved with horses can shape a life. That’s exactly why Ellen Healey founded the Gleneayre Equestrian Program.
“The idea started with children who had been exposed to horses in some way and then for whatever reason had to give them up,” Ellen said. “We saw these kids starting to get in trouble, starting to do poorly in school. Our first thought was, ‘If we could have kept them involved with horses, could we have avoided these problems that came up for them?’”
The answer was yes. Since its beginning in 1998, the Gleneayre Equestrian Program (GEP) has proven over and over again that being involved with horses builds better lives. From the working student program to equine-assisted learning and equine-facilitated mental health, GEP is empowering individuals.
The program also contributes to the sustainability of equestrian sport as a home for life to horses and ponies donated. Seeing the horses they used to ride is just one of the perks for alumni who return to Gleneayre Farm in Lumberton, New Jersey, but that’s not the reason they return. They come back to give back: to help, work or just hang out as role models for the next generation of students.
For Bill Rube, who joined the team as executive director in 2019, GEP’s mission is personal. “I was a problem child, and riding wasn’t an option for me,” he shared. “If a program like this had been available for me, it could have been the turning point in my life that stopped me from going to ‘the dark side.’”
Merica Samuels had that turning point when she joined the working student program at 10 years old. “Working here has taught me how to be responsible, to be on time and to have a good work ethic, so that when I got my first job, I was ready,” she said. “Honestly, I would have been lost without GEP. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have this program, but it wouldn’t be good.”
Gleneayre’s Working Student Program is unlike other working student positions. The program is open to youth starting at 10 years old, and they’re taught horsemanship from the ground up. They learn valuable life skills guided by Alison Johnson, managing director and trainer, and Jeannie Mattioni, program assistant and trainer. Alison and Jeannie evaluate students and assign them a horse to work with. “What I value most is the opportunity to see a child grow and feel confident in themselves, and knowing that it was their relationship with a horse that helped them thrive,” Jeannie said.
Students spend four days a week at the barn, where they’re responsible for the care of their horse. When they’re ready to advance, they’re assigned a new horse, all the way through their first postsecondary year.
After graduating from the program, students continue to come back to Gleneayre — not only for the strength it provides them, but as role models. Merica is now a student at Rowan University. “Being able to come back to the program has been such a good outlet, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “It’s so great to have the girls and the trainers to talk to, and, of course, the horses.”
Like Merica, Marielle Sarlo also found herself drawn back to GEP during the pandemic to be around the horses and serve as a mentor to current working students. “I just want to be here all the time!” she said. But it didn’t start out that way.
“When I started at GEP as a 10-year-old, I didn’t really want to be there. I had a poor work ethic and didn’t want to complete the requirements expected of me,” Marielle admitted. “As fate would have it, I was assigned a very challenging horse to help me become more goal-oriented. If it were not for GEP, I would not be riding horses, have the leadership skills to be captain of my equestrian team, or be enrolled in the Rutgers accelerated nursing program.”
Isabelle Sanger-Johnson became a working student at 12, and is now a sophomore at Stockton University majoring in social work. “Being a part of GEP has influenced my work ethic and my attention to detail,” she said. “I developed confidence and social skills, and became a better student. This program has been a constant, which has helped me to cope with the transitions in my life.”
Coming Full Circle
Merica, Marielle and Isabelle are just a few examples of GEP doing exactly what Ellen hoped it would. “Right now we have 12 students in the program, and yes it’s ‘only’ 12 but they’re 12 that are here for 11 years. We have a lot of time to really help and support these kids through whatever they’re dealing with in their lives,” she said. “We want them to be able to go out into the world and give back themselves; to become good parts of their own community.”
As working student alumni extend GEP’s influence by becoming good influences themselves, GEP directly influences hundreds of youth and adults through their equine-assisted learning and equine-facilitated mental health programs. When a horse is donated to GEP, the horse is there for life with no-expense-spared care. “We’re proud to work with these horses and honored to offer them the very best care, as they deserve, for the rest of their lives,” Alison said.
After the horse can no longer healthily be ridden, it’s retrained for one of the equine-assisted programs, which help fund care of all the horses, including those simply living out their days at Gleneayre.
Those programs haven’t been running due to the pandemic, and GEP’s annual hunter-derby fundraiser was cancelled in 2020. GEP is relying on direct donations and horse sponsorships to continue caring for the horses and shaping young lives. The program is also in need of a large pony; the GEP team’s dream would be one that can jump at least 2’9”. The pony, like all of the horses donated, will remain at Gleneayre for life — which is how Bill first met Ellen.
During his competition career, Bill had a horse called Mystery Date. Eight years ago, Bill began making inquiries as to what happened to Mystery Date. Ellen contacted him to inform him that Mystery Date had been donated to GEP and lived out his days helping many people. That kind of cyclical positive influence abounds at Gleneayre; Bill credits Alison with being the one who got him back into the saddle after a seven-year hiatus, at 64 years old.
“It’s all coming full circle,” he said. “I love the kids because I’m a big kid. I wouldn’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do: I ride with them, I go on trail rides, I get dressed up on Halloween with them, I share in barn chores with Jeannie and Alison. We’re all paying it forward in our own little way, whatever it may be.”
And those students will go on to pay it forward to others just as Merica, Marielle and Isabelle are — continuing the cycle and making the world a better place, all thanks to horses.
“You can’t keep what you have unless you give it away,” Bill summarized. “I really believe that, and these kids really appreciate it.”
For more information, visit gleneayreequestrianprogram.org