Finding peace through horsemanship

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Matthew Doward, owner and operator, launched A Horse’s Friend in 2004.
(Photos: Jacob Schermerhorn)

In the world of equine riders and trainers, the therapeutic benefits of working with animals are a somewhat recent topic. For Matthew Doward, founder and operator of the ranch and education program A Horse’s Friend, the pluses of a life with horses were revealed to him as a child.

Growing up in Batavia, at around age 9 or 10, Doward began going to the racing track just to see the horses. He ended up finding his future career.

“I just loved it. I come from a single family home and the track was a lot of guys, a lot of dads. So there was this role model part to it that for me was great,” Doward recalls. “I got a lot out of it even as a kid.”

Black riding culture is a much larger phenomenon in the southern United States, something Doward was also able to experience after living in Atlanta for a while. There was a baseline assumption of horsemanship regardless of your background. He recalls a family with three generations of riders, the youngest of whom dressed in line “with hip-hop culture” but still could “get country” when it came time to ride.

It was there Doward also learned the true depth of contributions that the Black community had to cowboy culture and the horse industry.

Doward learned firsthand the mental health effects of animal care, the exposure to new possible careers, the expansion of worldview, and the strengthening of community that comes with ranch work.

Doward brought those aspects with him when he first started nonprofit youth ranch and horsemanship program A Horse’s Friend in 2004. While he has done programs with people from Brighton, Pittsford, and other suburban communities, Doward’s true focus is on youth in the city of Rochester. 

He recently moved into his third location in 19 years. The new location of A Horse’s Friend in the town of Rush is on the campus of a former BOCES agricultural school. Although not all the facilities are currently in use, the 300 acres contain two classroom buildings, multiple barns, a riding area and trail. Doward says with the space, he could as much as triple the 26 horses he currently boards.

Along the way, he has seen success within Rochester. For example, until the pandemic, the ranch had a program with youth at Villa of Hope. A Horse’s Friend held riding events in the city limits like the “Kids Come First” ride during the violent summer of 2021.

Toni Ayala, whom Doward speaks of with obvious pride, is perhaps the most visible of his students and was celebrated with a newspaper profile at age 12. A quiet girl from the city, Ayala found confidence and skill through caring for horses. Several apprentices, primarily late elementary or middle school age, who have gone through the horsemanship program are similar success stories.

In public rides like “Kids Come First” or the first entrance into the stables, Doward observes the connection that happens the moment a young person sees a horse.

“Literally I’ve seen it happen just when they look at the horse,” he says. “But also going further, petting the horse, brushing it, being around it, it’s so relaxing just even with a little bit of time. Taking care of a living thing can change your relationship with life I think.”

When children from the city come to A Horse’s Friend, he sees similar reactions. They are invariably impressed or even unsettled by the quiet of the area. Like others, Doward remembers when Ayala first arrived, she remarked about being in a garden without gunshots or loud cars. For many children who have never seen farmland in person, it can be a world-expanding experience.

Still, as he has discussed in the past, the world of horse ownership and riding in the northern U.S. is unfortunately colored by a racial prejudice and economic hurdle. Doward’s own son, who was among the first participants at A Horse’s Friend, initially hated the idea of horsemanship classes. None of his friends were riders and, in an adolescent world of peer pressure, it became a mark of oddity for the young man.

That feeling extends to adults as well and affects both white and Black communities equally, Doward says. A lack of awareness or education means the mainstream doesn’t consider the possibility of Black riders.

“If you’ve got myself with a horse, and a white guy with a horse, and you’ve got a Black guy having a conversation with us in the middle. When he’s talking to me, I’m the country guy, I’m a farmer or something. But when he’s talking to the white guy, it’s an assumption, ‘You must be rich,’” Doward says. “It’s a weird dynamic where we have the same thing, but whoever’s delivering it, (people) tend to not give them the same credibility.”

While not a complete list, the Black Equestrian Network from the “Black in the Saddle Podcast,” an organization dedicated to acknowledging the impact and influence of Black people in the equine industry, shows how A Horse’s Friend stands in stark isolation for Black-owned businesses in the northeast.

Doward sees a role for A Horse’s Friend with the growing safety concerns for Black youth. Attempts to use the ranch to help with violence prevention have been limited, however, and Doward is frustrated that the potential to help the underprivileged remains unfulfilled.

“Ever since the program started, and to be quite honest with you, I still think this, (A Horse’s Friend) would be best as an extension of the R-Centers,” Doward says, referring to Rochester’s term for recreation centers. “(From Mayor Bill Johnson to now), I’ve met with every director or someone related to rec centers. They’re good meetings, usually, they’re like ‘Oh yeah, that sounds great.’ But they never seem to go anywhere.”

While A Horse’s Friend is listed on the website for Rochester’s Office of Violence Prevention, Doward says it has felt like a superficial partnership. And Rochester’s other community organizations, like churches, rarely have the resources to go beyond sporadic support, like occasionally borrowing a bus for transportation.

Running a ranch and caring for horses is not an inexpensive endeavor. A Horse’s Friend manages to stay open through its team of 15 volunteers and a handful of student mentors, through donations, and by boarding a number of privately owned horses. While Doward’s ranch aims to keep entrance fees reasonable, cost and transportation remain the other major challenges for the population he most wants to serve.

“Nineteen years of doing this, carrying on a program for kids of color, and still no other barns, no other programs have done something with an extensive urban component built in. Why is that? I say because there’s no money in it,” Doward says. “You’re not going to get rich off of it, and nine times out of 10 you’re giving them more than they’re able to give you. But I’ve always thought they deserve this opportunity just as much as anybody else does.”

With greater buy-in and support, Doward hopes that A Horse’s Friend could expand to become a community center complete with ranching capabilities, study rooms, quiet areas, and nature walks. He does not care if horsemanship is even a part of people’s enjoyment there, as long as it serves as a place of peace for people who need it.

“At the end of the day, it should be about connection, about loving and nurturing something, whether that be a relationship with a horse or yourself or the people close to you,” Doward says. “Because young people are getting left behind. People affected by violence, they’re turning round and reenacting the crimes and violence they suffered.”

“If it’s not this program, then fine. But it has to be something,” he concludes.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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