Next to her horse, 8-year-old Girl Scout Abigail Hemenway looks very small. But when it comes time to mount and ride, she does it with confidence - and a small boost from one of her instructors.
"I've been on (horses) a couple times, but with somebody leading," Abigail said as she and seven other Girl Scouts walked their horses through a wide, slow loop along a graveled trail last weekend. "This is my first time really riding a horse. It's fun."
Thanks to a city youth activities grant and the cooperative efforts of the Tongass Alaska Girl Scouts and Montana Creek Horseback Tours, Abigail is one of 48 Girl Scouts learning the ins and outs of horse care this summer.
Over a period of four weekly two-hour sessions, the Girl Scouts have been taught how to approach and care for a horse, and have learned the basics of riding.
Early classes emphasize "groundwork," said Kathy Buss, director of program and membership for the Girl Scouts.
"It's a progressive program," Buss said. "It teaches the girls a lot about safety, about always wearing helmets, the kind of clothing you should and shouldn't wear around a horse."
The program also makes it clear that caring for a horse is a responsibility, said Ray Davis, the head wrangler for Montana Creek Horseback Tours.
"So many of the girls, they want to come out and just start riding," Davis said. "We try to do our best to give them an idea that it's more than just the riding. It's an animal that needs taking care of."
Sunday Stinson, 16, said she was grateful for the chance to learn.
"I love all animals," she said, patting her horse's neck. "Always have. It's just one of those dreams you have as a kid, you know?"
Thirty-two girls have completed the program, which costs $50 and will wrap up on Aug. 31. They range from age 7 to 16, Buss said, and represent a variety of riding skill levels.
"We've got girls who, when we were still working with Swampy Acres (stable), had taken several lessons every time they could, and then we've got girls who decided they loved horses and wanted to try this," Buss said.
Several girls joined Girl Scouts to pursue the program, she added. With the skills they're picking up, they'll all be well on their way to earning a merit badge - awarded for the mastery of skills - in horseback riding.
"Part of the skill requirement is you learn there's a responsibility for everything you do," Buss said. "A lot of girls want a horse until they have to pick its feet. ... It's a fabulous kind of thing, but it's not one of those things where Mom will feed the dog."
Montana Creek Horseback Tours is owned by Lyle Yost, a Colorado dentist. Horses are brought in on the ferry from winter stables in British Columbia and Washington to provide rides for tourists, said Yost's son-in-law, Steve Astin, who is helping teach the Girl Scout program.
"I think these kids really enjoy it," Astin said. "It seems like there's quite a few people up in this area that want to have some kind of connection or see the horses and ride a little bit."
The company has approached several other local youth organizations about a similar teaching program, but so far Girl Scout leaders are the only ones to pursue it, Astin added.
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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