First published in the Dec. 17 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Sometimes, you have to look hard for stories.
This story arrived while sitting in a doctor’s office and overhearing another patient expressing her frustration about the delivery of 1,000 bags of wood shavings. That’s how I came to meet Jane Haven, who introduced me to a wonderful organization called Taking the Reins, which has played such a vital role in the life of a 22-year-old Los Angeles woman named Danielle Garcia.
Three stories in one column. All with one “hello.”
Haven was the woman with the wood shavings and explained that they were for the group. The organization has become a second career for Haven, who was a psychologist for 30 years, and what a ride it has been for her.
“I go to work each day and immerse myself in nature, my beloved horses and the wonder and energy of youth,” said Haven, who grew up on a ranch in Colorado and has been an equestrian all her life. “My career as a psychologist was filled with very meaningful work. Now, I have witnessed meaningful growth and healing for many of the children served in our program.”
Taking the Reins is based on 2.5 acres of green space at 3919½ Rigali Road in Atwater Village, just south of the North Atwater Park and several other stables. In its 20 years of existence, the program has allowed 2,200 girls and young women ages 8-18 to learn responsibility, absorb knowledge and even prepare for college while working with horses or in a large garden.
Many girls from South Pasadena, Pasadena and Glendale have participated in Taking the Reins since it began in 1998 and it has partnered with many private and public schools in the San Gabriel Valley and around the city (with whom Haven has also consulted). It also offers workshops and has partnered with the Girl Scouts of America.
Most of the participants are from so-called “high-risk neighborhoods” and 85% live below the poverty line and attend Title 1 schools. Haven noted that the program has parents who bring their children in Range Rovers, but most youngsters take a bus — or two — to participate in the after-school or weekend sessions, which last six weeks.
“A lot of the kids who come to us, they’ve never played in the dirt, never touched an animal, much less a horse,” Haven said. “The kids in this program have to be responsible and they have to rise to the occasion, and that’s a wonderful thing to witness.”
Haven said that of the children who stay with the program two years or more — about 40% of the after-school and weekend program attendees — there is a 100% on-time high school graduation rate. About 98% who apply to college get accepted, and most of those students are the first of their families to go to college. The list of schools is impressive — Stanford, Wellesley, schools all over California and many others around the country.
Members of Taking the Reins are going to be marching in this year’s Rose Parade, at the invitation of the Arabian Horse Association.
“It’s a great thing to watch and gives me a wonderful optimism for the future,” said Haven, who was on the organization’s board of directors before becoming executive director in 2013, the same year the organization moved into its current location. “We attract a wide spectrum of girls of different levels of ability, but it’s the kind of program where they have a chance to make a difference.”
“We present learning in a hands-on, engaged physical way that allows us to address certain behaviors that are harder to help in a school setting,” she continued. “Then, when they go back to the classroom, they just participate more. They are more empowered.”
Haven, who lives in the North Hollywood/Valley Village area, talked about one girl who had problems with her temper. She eventually was given a role leading younger children, and the problems “lessened considerably.”
Working with the 13 horses is a focal point, but some of the girls really like working in the garden. These days, the 1.4-acre garden area is used to grow food to distribute in boxes to families, as well as a homeless shelter in Hollywood.
Danielle Garcia is one of those girls that Haven points to with pride. Now a semester away from graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, she started participating at Taking the Reins when she was 11 and sharing bunk beds in a Koreatown studio apartment with her mom.
“I was an only child and left to my own devices,” Garcia recalled.
But she loved horses and learned about Taking the Reins after discovering that taking riding lessons typically cost more than she could possibly afford. So, she started taking the bus to attend Taking the Reins.
“I met so many people who changed my life,” Garcia said. “It became like my family. I never have been in a place compared to it. I grew up to become an advocate for myself and to become an example to other girls.”
Garcia received a scholarship, to which she credits Haven’s connections, and she said Haven helped her get her expenses paid when she first moved to college. She has ridden for the college equestrian team and placed second nationally. Garcia has also competed as a judge in a national Arabian horse show in Oklahoma City. It was the first time she’d been on an airplane.
“Doing the judging has really boosted my public speaking and my confidence,” she said.
Garcia is home now because of the pandemic and is working as an instructor.
“I see myself as a role model. A lot of the girls know my story,” she said. “I’ve gotten letters from them telling me how much they have progressed. They are really special to me.
“The girls told me that they might not have finished school, if they had not gotten in Taking the Reins,” Garcia added. “I saw myself in them.”
Columnist’s Note: For further information about participating in or donating to Taking the Reins, visit takingthereins.org, or call (323) 906-1560. You can also tour the farm during visitation days or sign up to volunteer.