2018-06-09 / News

Little Barn Shares Equine Culture in Safe and Nurturing Setting

By Marley Tucker


Henry rolls on his back at the Little Barn, a comforting routine to relieve the itchiness of biting insects and sweat. Henry rolls on his back at the Little Barn, a comforting routine to relieve the itchiness of biting insects and sweat. Horseback riders of all skill levels can learn how to ride, care for, and bond with horses at the Mackinac Island Children’s Riding Academy, also known as the Little Barn, on Mission Hill.

Restored by the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours and the Chambers family in 2010, the Little Barn has for eight years been a place to learn about horses for children who might not be able to otherwise afford riding lessons. The mission is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for those who care about horses.

“Horses are just so generous with their spirits and watching their interaction with children is an amazing experience,” said Director Gretchen Colman. “We mostly get beginner riders here, but that’s what our horses are used to. They’re very gentle and love attention. So many people come up to feed the horses that they love greeting new people. Some tourists will just walk by and come and check everything out.”

Activities include daily chores, grooming, private instruction, lectures, and group riding lessons with Little Barn horses Katie, Clarence, Henry, Charming, and Poppy. Each horse has a unique personality. For example, when Poppy was found, she was thin, allegedly abused, and fearful of people. Ms. Colman bonded with Poppy and now the horse will sometimes follow her around the way a puppy would follow its owner. While in her stall, Poppy sometimes will scrape the ground with a hoof to ask for attention.

Ms. Colman previously was an instructor at the Free Rein Center for Therapeutic Riding and Education in Brevard, North Carolina. Free Rein works with children and adults who have developmental, cognitive, emotional, and physical challenges who might benefit from interaction with horses. Its programs utilize the human-horse connection as a therapeutic component toward healing and understanding.

She is certified by the professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.). One of her mentors was Sandy Webster, who has attended two Paralympics competitions and three world championships as a coach for riders with disabilities. Mrs. Colman relies on her experience to connect with children at Little Barn.

“I attended riding school in England in my youth and my riding instructor had such an impact on my life. It wasn’t just about riding - the barn work and the theory classes were very inclusive and gave me an appreciation for the opportunity to work with these creatures,” said Ms. Colman. “The relationship with a horse isn’t just a give-and-take, and those teachings have only evolved for me since then. I hope to give students that knowledge today by fostering a warm environment.”

She said she loves how her job can help others grow and can bring feelings of healing to those who need it.

The nonprofit organization is funded through community efforts. Young riders in the program perform a variety of activities during the summer. Children and volunteers regularly help clean and take care of the barn and horses. Island children, ages seven and older, partake of lessons from the academy at 10 a.m. Tuesday through Friday.

The Little Barn operates in the summer season and closes after Labor Day. When it closes, Ms. Colman will take a few horses to Kalamazoo with her to provide therapy sessions for children. The other horses will be taken to Upper Peninsula wintering quarters or to a place they will receive extra instruction.

“Charming is only four years old, and I thought that putting him on a farm for six months with no work would be detrimental in its own way,” said Ms. Colman. “From being around kids constantly to suddenly lacking that communication requires adjustment.”

In addition to regular students, day visitors drop in to pet or ride the horses. They provide an opportunity for older students to step up and take on a leadership role. Makayla Rickley, 12, will talk to visitors and help them handle the horses, besides doing her chores in the barn.

“I love being involved with the barn and having the responsibility,” she said. “Every horse is unique, and the job isn’t boring when so much is happening. The horses love attention and I like being trusted to help out.”

Through the summer season, children, visitors, and Island residents can expect to see the horses in events such as the Lilac Festival Grand Parade and at the Little Barn, where the animals help students learn more about horsemanship and getting involved in the community.

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