Graham Equestrian Center's founder looks to expand nonprofit's reach

Towson Times
Founder Jim McDonald is a retired audiologist who wears a cowboy hat.

Sitting on the fence of an outdoor riding arena at the Graham Equestrian Center, Addison Blankenship, 7, high-fived other youngsters as they trotted past her on horseback.

The Glen Arm girl also listened in as riding instructor Rachael North explained to a reporter how horses like Bali, Willie and Valentine came to live there. Some are leased, some are rescue animals; others were donated by former owners who couldn't afford to keep them, North said.

Addison's ears perked up.

"I'll take one," she said.

The setting was a summer camp at the nonprofit equestrian center, a picture postcard of country life located just north of commercial Harford Road past Parkville. There, 15 students — the maximum preferred for summer camps — were learning not only how to groom, saddle and ride horses, but to treat them with love and respect.

"It's really about connecting kids with horses," said North, 28, director of the riding program at the center. "They don't just get on the horse and go. We teach them about horsemanship."

"Part of it is learning what horses need from you," said Jim McDonald, founder of the center and chairman of its board of directors.

The seven-year-old Graham Equestrian Center is mostly one big teachable moment.

"A lot of people board horses here. That and lessons are the biggest part of our revenue," said McDonald, who also serves as a riding instructor.

The 187-acre former Baltimore City park was named for Albert Graham, a farmer at the turn of the last century, who owned the property and bequeathed it to the city. The land was purchased by the state in 2000 and incorporated into nearby Gunpowder State Park. But state officials weren't sure how best to utilize it and put out a Request for Proposals.

Enter McDonald, now a retired audiologist with a lifelong obsession for horses.

"For me, it was a genetic disorder," quipped McDonald, 65, of Upper Falls near Kingsville, who wears a cowboy hat and grew up working and hanging out at a stable in Silver Spring. "I was a barn rat. My parents would drop me off and I'd work nine hours just to ride the horses."

When he was 12, his parents bought him a former lead horse at Pimlico Race Course, named Thunderbolt, that he owned until he went into the Army.

"He was a beautiful white horse with blue eyes," McDonald remembered. "I used to ride him to the soda fountain in town to get lunch."

Financially stable

In 2008, the equestrian center opened at 10301 Harford Road. It offers lessons, trail riding, leasing, trailering and boarding services, as well as special events such as polo demonstrations and public visitation days.

"We want people to know we're here," McDonald said.

The center also works with government agencies, such as the Baltimore County Police Department, which uses the center as part of its activities for the Juvenile Offenders In Need of Supervision, or JOINS program.

The center is maintained by a small staff that also includes facilities manager Holly La Barre and barn manager Beth Hartka, who lives in a trailer on the grounds.

The center features a 100-by-200-foot riding ring, a 22-stall barn and a smaller hay barn, where a farm cat likes to sleep on the seat of a John Deere tractor that was purchased with a grant of $20,000 from the Mittendorf Foundation. There's also a feed room, a tack room and a helmet storage room, as well as the air-conditioned J. Michael Keegan Classroom, named for a friend of McDonald's in Jarrettsville, who helped him build it. A mechanical horse, named Missy, sits in the classroom, along with a photo of students from Digital Harbor High School at the equestrian center.

McDonald hopes to raise $300,000 for an indoor arena that can be used in the winter, as well as money to build a shed to store the tractor and other equipment.

It's a lot to maintain, LaBarre said, including the 25 acres of pasture, which itself takes up $10,000 of the center's annual budget of $238,000.

"From here, you can ride all the way to the Gunpowder River," McDonald said. He said the center also serves as a promotional tool for Gunpowder State Park and a dog-walking park for area residents.

McDonald and LaBarre said the center is financially stable, thanks not only to lesson and boarding fees, but to grants such as the one from Mittendorf and $2,000 last month from Towson Elks Lodge 469. The four one-week summer camps are also doing well. Each camp costs $350, "and we have some kids who do all four weeks," North said.

"We're moving along," McDonald said. "We're not just making ends meet."

"We're doing OK," La Barre said. "We really need to put in an indoor arena. If we could stop losing money in the winter, we'd really be doing OK."

The center also has something of a gender imbalance. The students are mostly girls, although lately, North said she has been seeing more boys.

McDonald said it seems to be an issue for equestrian centers on the East Coast.

"For some reason that's inexplicable to me, guys aren't interested in horses," he said.

Full camps

It's the summer months when the center hits its stride, with a daily schedule of riding lessons and four separate weeks of summer camps, one of them for advanced riders.

"All of our camps are almost all the way full this month," said North, 28, of Lauraville, who has been teaching at Graham Equestrian Center for the past 18 months and used to rent stalls in Joppa for her own business, Something Ventured Equestrian.

"This space is perfect, and it's nonprofit and their mission is to educate," North said.

As much as anything, children are learning to function independently.

"Addison here is self-sufficient," North said. "If she was a couple of inches taller, she wouldn't need any of us."

Word-of-mouth is helping to promote the center to parents like Alison Kersten, who heard about it from a friend at church and now takes her daughter, Elise, 11, there for lessons.

"I enjoy watching," said Kersten, who homeschools her daughter. "It's so peaceful. And (Elise) gets to have an outlet for her love of horses."

She also thinks the lessons are building her daughter's self-confidence. McDonald echoed that, saying the lessons help children to become calm and assertive.

At the summer camp earlier this month, North, known to her students as "Miss Rachael," led them in games on horseback in the outdoor riding arena to teach them to steer their horses. One game was to steer their horses over to the fence so riders could high-five other students sitting on the fence.

Another game was like musical chairs, in which riders competed in rounds to get their horses to straddle poles on the ground. There were more poles than horses, so the slowpoke in each round was disqualified.

Charissa Johnson, 10, of Kingsville, has no pets at home — "not even a goldfish," she said. She was thrilled to attend the camp and ride her favorite, horse, Guinness.

"It's pretty cool," she said. "I've liked horses since I was, like, 3. I wanted to ride so badly. I'm thinking about coming back here again."

"I love it," said Safiyyah Bennett, 10, of Towson, who won the musical horses game. She admitted, though, "It was hard steering them."

Piped up Addison, "I just love horses.They're such beautiful creatures."

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