Misty Meadows, a gift to Martha’s Vineyard Community Horse Center

Misty Meadows will once again become a community center, thanks to a generous donation from the Kenney family.

Jerry Kenney, owner of Martha's Vineyard Community Horse Center, and wife Carol, center, daughter Kristen, right, and sister Maureen Kenney, left. — Lynn Christoffers

Horse lovers across the Vineyard have dreamed that one day Misty Meadows would return to the Island community. On Tuesday, Nov. 15, that dream came true, when Carol and Jerry Kenney, owners of Misty Meadows since 1999, officially transferred the deed to the Martha’s Vineyard Community Horse Center (MVCHC).

In addition to the Kenneys’ gift of the property, they also provided enough funds to support the operations of MVCHC for the next three years. They wanted to allow enough time for the board to build its endowment, making sure the programs would be sustainable and have enough momentum to continue.

Ms. Kenney, in an interview with The Times on Monday, said the motivation was to serve the community once again.

“The potential is really limitless,” Ms. Kenney said.

On Friday, Nov. 25, MVCHC hosted an open house at Misty Meadows to celebrate and promote its upcoming programs. Nearly 200 people came, and children relished face painting and pony rides.

“This is the most amazing gift the Island community has ever received,” Julie Flanders, a resident of Chilmark and MVCHC volunteer, said.

Staff hope that Misty Meadows will be a hub for the horse community, and they hope to open the arena for training space, to host educational events with speakers and clinics, and to build an alliance on the Vineyard.

Back to its roots

The pervasive horse community on the Vineyard may very well be attributed to Misty Meadows, dating back to 1972, when it became a major equestrian center that made riding both a sport and a pastime on Martha’s Vineyard. It featured English and Western riding clinics, an indoor and outdoor riding ring, a hunt course, and miles of trails. New horse farms sprang up as a result, and the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council expanded its programs to provide activities for Islander youth.

The idea to make Misty Meadows once again a community center started back in the spring of 2015. Ms. Kenney and Sarah McKay, now the executive director of MVCHC, met while serving on the board of Island Grown Schools, a nonprofit that teaches students from kindergarten to high school about sustainable food systems on the Vineyard.

Unbeknownst to Ms. Kenney, Ms. McKay had an extensive background in horse riding and training. Originally from Moy, a rural village in Northern Ireland, Ms. McKay grew up in a multigenerational horse-oriented family, and began working with horses at the age of 2.

Ms. McKay eventually left horses altogether, got her master’s degree in the United States, and later became store manager at Cronig’s Market for 15 years.

It was when she was looking for a career change that the idea of creating a community horse center at Misty Meadows came about.

“What would you really love to do?” Ms. Kenney asked her.

The answer for Ms. McKay was simple: Start working with horses again.

Ms. Kenney said that Ms. McKay — with her horse background, her people management skills, and business experience from Cronig’s, and being an active member of the Island community — was the ideal candidate to run the center she envisioned.

“Sarah McKay was the one who could organize the effort so this could be a community center,” Ms. Kenney said.

The rest is history. After garnering enough support, MVCHC created a volunteer task force last winter and put together a pilot program that dealt with both riding skills and equine-assisted-learning (EAL). Ms. Kenney observed the programs, and Ms. McKay said she was “overjoyed” with what she saw.

“She just started to learn and realize how much horses actually had to give, and how much of a benefit that could be to our community in so many ways beyond just riding,” Ms. McKay said of Ms. Kenney.

The Kenneys ultimately decided they wanted to gift Misty Meadows entirely to the MVCHC, which to Ms. McKay and program director Rebecca Miller came as a major surprise.

“With that comes a huge responsibility to maintain the integrity of this property,” Ms. Miller, one of the owners of North Tabor Farm in Chilmark and also a mental health counselor, said.

In the meantime, staff will prepare to start their programs in January. The goal, ultimately, is to have enough funds in the endowment not only to support the operations of the facility — which costs thousands of dollars a month to maintain — but to allow MVCHC to do affordable and even free programs so that it can be accessible to the community at large.

The center is already working toward that goal with its upcoming programs, where financial aid is available and an hour-and-a-half session costs $30.

Riding your way to empowerment

The programs that will be offered in January have two different focuses — on horsemanship and riding skills, and on EAL, which deals with unmounted groundwork. The EAL programs involve relationship and social skill building for all age groups, with weekly themes and activities.

The “Girl Power” program, for example, helps girls ages 9 to 14 learn about healthy boundaries and effective communication through team building and leadership skills. Each week they focus on a theme, like asserting healthy boundaries, and students will participate in exercises that deal with that theme.

The “Boys Alive” program, for ages 8 to 11, is similar in that it addresses self-confidence, effective communication, and how to regulate one’s emotions. It also deals specifically with the impacts of bullying.

“Reflections” is the adult program that aids in problem solving, communication, self-care, and general horsemanship skills.

As prey animals, horses are ideal for these kinds of programs because of their innate sensitivity and awareness to what’s around them, providing the rider or student with an immediate response to their actions, forcing the person to be in tune with how they are communicating with the horse.

Ms. Miller said that the programs instill a sense of self-awareness by getting “honest and instant feedback” from the horse, and by interacting and working collaboratively with a group.

“These types of programs really demand, whoever the participant is, that they’re present and paying attention,” Ms. McKay said.

In a world that is increasingly reliant on technology — with people attached to smartphones, laptops, and iPads — these kinds of programs, no matter the age, help manage distractions and allow a space to unplug.

“I think a lot of children will be empowered, will learn communication skills, and become more sensitive,” Ms. Kenney told The Times in a phone conversation. “Especially in a world where we spend so much time in front of screens.”

The Kenneys have two daughters, Kristen and Blair, both of whom began riding at Misty Meadows in 1992. Mr. Kenney told The Times at the open house that horseback riding instilled a sense of self-confidence in their daughters, especially for Blair, who grew up with dyslexia.

Ms. Kenney said that through riding, Blair was able rise to challenges and tackle her schoolwork with confidence.

“She never gave up,” Ms. Kenney said.

Ms. Kenney said the center at Misty Meadows is a place where people can come to share in the many benefits horses have to offer; whether they’re children or adults, volunteers or observers, they can experience the joy of being around such powerful animals.

“Horses,” Ms. Kenney said, “have a magic.”

MVCHC will host an equine-assisted learning experience, open to the public, on Saturday, Dec. 3, from 10 am to 12 pm at Misty Meadows.