An innovative program is turning LA’s most overlooked neighborhood into an equestrian haven
A farm sits tucked inside one of America’s most notorious cities. The Compton Jr. Posse equestrian facility is hidden between single family homes in the Richland Farms area of Compton in Los Angeles. It looks, sounds, and smells like a real farm because technically, it is one, thanks to a zoning regulation put into place more than 100 years ago. On a Saturday morning, it’s sunny and the sound of birds chirping and kids laughing carries on the crisp air. Chickens cross the yard where horses are being cleaned and sheep laze in a small petting zoo. It feels like it’s a world away from what’s just outside its iron gate.
“This is a treasure,” said Mark Carlos, Saturday program supervisor, and a former Jr. Posse student himself. “It’s like a pool in the middle of a desert. What’s being taught is a lost art.”
While Compton may not be the violent community it once was in the 1980s and 1990s, parents still face challenges, such as keeping kids focused on school and away from negative situations on the streets or preventing a sedentary lifestyle on the couch in front of the television.
Indeed, the Jr. Posse’s motto of “Keeping Kids on Horses and Off the Streets” could now be turned inside out. Carlos noted that, “Many kids today want to stay inside playing video games”-- a notion that’s reflected in recent research from a 2015 Pew Research Center study showing that 72 percent of all American teens play video games on a computer, game console or portable device such as a cell phone, and 81 percent of teens have or have access to a game console. The Jr. Posse’s modern mission is to keep kids off the streets, but also to get them outside.
This makes the draw of the horses, the fresh air, and the physical activity that the center offers that much more important. Since 1988, each year the nonprofit Jr. Posse has served more than 1,500 kids ages 8 to 18 with award-winning, year-round programming, including recreational and competition equestrian training and ranching skills, and partner programs, such as the explorer program with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority in Santa Monica. Tuition is paid using a low-income sliding scale, and some kids proudly shared with me that they were attending on a scholarship by “writing about their favorite horse” and helping out around the ranch.
But it’s the connection with the horses—and with the people who make it all possible—that keeps kids coming back.
“People who have been here years before will come back,” said Nathan Williams-Bonner, who started training at the facility when he was 13 years old and now trains the younger generation. “We always have familiar faces. It’s like a family. You can pick up where you left off.”
‘It’s given me courage’
Gabrielle, 11, was not enthusiastic when her mother first enrolled her in riding classes at Compton Jr. Posse. Now in her fourth year, she comes on Monday evenings, in addition to Saturdays, as part of the competition team.
“We’re such close friends here,” she said. “They made me feel like I belong.”
The companionship extends to the horses. “Sunny” is her favorite, she said, “because he was really a challenge to me.” He communicates how he’s feeling with his positions, she said. For example, he might put his ears back or stomp his feet over and over. “I’ll pet him and talk to him to calm him down, or adjust the saddle,” Gabrielle said. “It’s really special how you can connect every time you ride them.”
Horses are particular, said Williams-Bonner, with personalities as distinctive as their names: Eartha Kitt, Fury, and Pirate, to name a few.
“These horses are rescues,” he said. “The nature of the calmness (from them) comes from just being together and being in a safe, happy place.” He feels the horses like working with the kids. “The horses enjoy doing something.”
The same could be said about the students. Eniko, 9, and his friends giggle and talk (and listen) even while mucking stalls and pushing heavy wheelbarrows.
In today’s era of growing disconnection online and off, a human-equine bond that lasts through the challenging years from adolescence to adulthood has powerful benefits, according to the facility’s website. Students at the Jr. Posse are required to submit report cards and keep good grades in order to ride, and they report higher SAT scores, higher self-esteem, and a stronger resistance to peer pressure.
For Gabrielle and others, the program has given them even more. Learning to ride has helped her become more open and confident and has made her willing to try new activities. “It’s given me the courage to do other things,” she said. “I used to be this shy little girl. Now I can dance onstage. I never would have imagined doing that before!”
A Bigger Stage
A big part of Compton Jr. Posse’s mission is to prepare its students for college and for careers in the $120 billion equestrian industry. Top-notch trainers, such as Olympian Will Simpson, have worked with young riders to help them reach their goals of competing at the highest level and earning college scholarships. But it comes at a price.
When Mayisha Akbar, the founder of the organization, recently fell ill, it became clear how much work she had put into fundraising, bringing in sponsorships and donors, some of which has dried up. The Jr. Posse previously relied on its semi-annual fundraiser gala for an estimated 70 percent of its funding, but the program is still in the process of ramping up on planning since its last event in 2015.
In 2016, in addition to supporting the students at its home facility, the Jr. Posse assisted 20 college students with scholarships—some of whom are competing on western riding and equestrian team in other states such as Oklahoma and Tennessee—and relies on generous in-kind donations from actress Patricia Heaton’s Heaton-Hunt Family Foundation and others in the local community to maintain the momentum and meet the demand for its services.
For the facility to sustain itself and partner facilities or branch out into other communities, which is ultimately where the Jr. Posse wants to be, more volunteers and paid staff are needed to fill in the gaps to help the ranch thrive the way it has for nearly 30 years while Akbar recovers, said Williams-Bonner.
“We’ve realized how much we need funding so we know everyone is taken care of,” he said. “It’s always been there because of Miss Mayisha’s hard work.”
A gifted rider himself, Williams-Bonner is actively training to compete at the highest level of show jumping—in grand prix competitions—but lacks the funding to officially do so full time.
“I have the experience, I have the ride ability, I have the knowledge to be able to show at the highest level,” he said. “But this is a sport for the rich, for the elite. I need to work on my team and getting myself out there.”
Still, the value of working with the horses and kids at the Jr. Posse isn’t lost on him. Now 21, Williams-Bonner credits the crucial years of 18 to 21 that made him appreciate everything he learned at the ranch as a teenager.
“Living in the inner city as a young black person, you realize you’re a target for certain things,” he said. “I’m learning to love the little things again. The horses literally save me every day. It’s taught me to be resilient.”