Early morning as the sun rises, casting long shadows, the quarter-mile, tree-lined drive is inviting. It passes through grassy fields dotted with white daisies that dance in the breeze, and finally arrives at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Horse Center (MVCHC) which on July 1 will officially change its name to Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center (MM).
Misty Meadows has been a major riding center with strong roots on the Vineyard since 1972. With a long history and connection on the Island, “many people have memories of riding here back in the day,” said Sarah McKay, executive director. Changing the name from MVCHC to MM, she said, better reflects the role of preserving an Island landmark with a long equine history while honoring those memories.
The five-acre property is surrounded by the 20 acres of conservation land that MM leases from Nat’s Farm/Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and uses for riding trails. Having been gifted the property by Carol and Jerry Kenney in 2016, the organization started a pilot program to discover what the community needed and wanted, McKay said. “There was such a great response, we kept moving forward, taking one step at a time. After becoming a 501(c)(3), we created a board and our bylaws.” In January 2017, a full program was established.
After successfully merging in February, Misty Meadows now offers therapeutic indoor riding year-round. “With the merger with Rising Tide, we have embarked on a strategic planning process to help us get really clear for the next three years of what our goals are, hoping that will help us with our development and fundraising,” McKay said. “The first phase is completed and we will share with the community this summer.” With a staff of six, two full-timers including McKay, everyone does a little bit of everything. There is a long list of positions to fill once they have the support to do so.
In the beginning, Misty Meadows was strictly a conventional riding horse barn. The programming now encompasses three learning types. Equine-assisted learning (EAL) classes are unmounted (not on the horse) and have theme-based activities. Three to four horses are loose in the arena, a group up to 20 participants observe quietly for 10 minutes, “which is a long time to watch,” said McKay. After, the group discusses their observations and is asked: What were they doing? Who was the leader? Who did they remind them of? “This leads to some really interesting conversations,” said McKay.
Another form of EAL is activity based on experiential learning. This past Thursday, the Misty Meadows board and the Magic at Misty event crew experienced a session. The horses were party guests, and the humans created the space to invite them in; the horses chose whether they wanted to participate. “Coming together, no matter who you are, opened up a dialogue based on how the horses responded, which brought the group together for problem-solving and working together,” said Susie Buck, head instructor.
Rising Tide Therapeutic Programs, the official name for the therapeutic programs at Misty Meadows, has a deep connection on the Island, honoring the tradition and history of the program. The advantage of the equine experience is threefold: physical, emotional, and social. In therapeutic programs while using the horse, sessions are modified around the individual.
The horse center also offers recreational classes based around traditional riding. They focus on horsemanship and unmounted skills in the barn.
Benefits of these programs come from working with a horse as a teaching partner. As a mirror, the horse reflects back energy levels or anxiousness, our own self-awareness. Being around a big animal is powerful for confidence-building, to learn coping and social skills while stepping away from technology.
Emily Wilmot, barn manager, joined the staff two weeks ago. A recent graduate from Delaware Valley University, she is in charge of the overall health and care of the horses, including monitoring how often they are ridden. Each horse gets three hours of work a day, five days a week; the older horses work two hours a day. The feeding ritual includes strapping a personalized bucket around each of the horse’s heads, filled with food/grains based on their needs.
Currently there are 11 horses and one mule at the center. Horses are added to the herd in a variety of ways; some are loaned, others have been purchased or leased. Misty Meadows is always looking for therapeutic riding horses, especially larger ones to carry weight. “Getting the right mix of horses is a constant process, evaluating and making sure the animals are comfortable with their job, healthy,” said McKay.
The horse center works with this philosophy: Let horses be horses. The animals live outside 24/7, 365 days a year, and are much happier and healthier; some work is very taxing emotionally for the horse, as they are in tune with the individual’s emotions, staff explained. When a session is over, they run it off or hang out with their buddies.
The horse community changed quite a bit over the past 20 years, hitting a low point four to five years ago. “There were a lot more backyard horses and ponies,” according to McKay. With the opening of this facility and greater community interest overall, participation in horse activities is on the rise. Misty Meadows supports the horse community during the off-season, conducting workshops and clinics. With more than 100 horses on the Island, they make the arena available for winter riding.
Recently, a group of 20 children from inner-city New York, part of the Islands of Tolerance Program, visited. “Some of those kids were teens, never been out of the city or seen or touched a horse before,” McKay said. The Charter and West Tisbury Schools participate during their Project Periods. The MVCHC/MM also reaches out to recovery counselors and mental health professionals to demonstrate how these methods can be a tool to help others, where the horse helps the individual self-discover in a very powerful way.
As McKay plans the future, she sees more integration with volunteer programs, to be more inclusive. “My dream is to have some of the older kids working with some therapeutic clients, side by side,” said McKay. “There is a lot to do to keep a facility like this, and we depend on our amazing volunteers; they truly help us to do the things that need to be done. Without them we would be nothing.” Whether dusting or weeding, things that are not directly horse-related will give participants the opportunity to be near the horses. The center is seeking volunteers and welcomes all inquiries.
“Working with different organizations on the Island and honoring that long tradition of nature and conservancy,” said Buck, “horses and nature in general, this place has its own wonderful hum, a thrum of its own.”
Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center encourages people to come to the property Monday thru Saturday and walk around, take in the view, and experience its magic. To launch Misty Meadows and its expanded vision, a benefit “Magic at Misty,” will be held June 22 and 23 at the Center. For details, visit mvhorsecenter.com.