To ensure that kids learn how to bathe a horse properly, why not let them have fun painting the animal in vibrant colors first so there's something visible to wash away?
That concept had 20 youth volunteers brushing water-soluble paints and glitter Tuesday on five mild-mannered horses at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine as part of a new educational venture called the Legacy Program.
The two-week sessions for youths ages 12 to 17 are a far cry from past summers, when parents tended to use the previously unstructured volunteer opportunity at the 58-acre facility as a "free baby-sitting service," said Jill Pokorny, volunteer coordinator and former teacher.
"Last year was like a free-for-all," said Pokorny, who joined the staff in July 2011 after moving to Maryland from Florida. "We needed an organized program to benefit our needs, as well as a structured way to teach kids how to take care of a horse."
Caroline Robertson, former head of volunteers and now development director, said staff members previously found themselves supervising large groups of teens "milling about."
"Most teens are interested in horses, period," she said. "Here, they have a passion for our horses' plight. But they don't necessarily understand what it takes to have a pony and the work that's involved."
The Legacy Program sets about correcting that situation.
"This year, our program is educational and fun," Robertson said. Scheduled activities for the youth volunteers, who pre-register and pay $100 each to cover expenses, will include the expected, like mucking stalls and preparing feed, and the unexpected.
On Monday, the first day of the new program, the youths held a digital-photo scavenger hunt that took them "over every inch of the farm" to retrieve puzzle pieces that they assembled into a poster, Pokorny said.
"We're trying to think out of the box," Pokorny said, adding that the kids are grouped differently for various tasks "to get them out of their comfort zone and acquainted with one another."
Mickey Gomez, executive director of the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, said the rescue facility goes the extra mile in its efforts to include youth.
"Days End has enhanced its youth volunteer program in a way that makes the experience richer for the farm and for the volunteers," she said, calling painting the horses "pure genius."
"I applaud anything that helps get youth excited about volunteering and making a difference," she said.
For the 45-minute painting exercise, five groups of four kids each first created designs on a line drawing, then were told to incorporate one component from each group's sketch to paint on their assigned horse. The youths not only became comfortable around the horses as they worked, but they were also given tips on observing horse behavior up close, Robertson said.
Jinx, one of the horses confiscated two years ago from Baltimore street vendors called a-rabs, stood patiently as kids simultaneously decorated his coat and fawned over him. Isaac, who was brought to Days End after someone found him emaciated and tied to a tree by the side of a road, modeled similar stylish markings when the day's craft time ended.
Both animals joined the program's contingent of eight horses chosen specifically for their gentle demeanor to work with visitors and volunteers, Robertson said. In the midday heat, they joined Ziggy, Ozzy and Cayenne in being hosed down and groomed after their brief stints as equine canvases.
As Robertson spoke, Izzy, an underweight horse being rehabilitated, wandered near the youths for one of her multiple feeding sessions. While horses normally forage 16 to 19 hours a day on grass, the diet of a recovering horse is supplemented as needed with hay and other grains several times a day, she said.
While the program builds in plenty of time with the horses, its focus isn't solely on catering to kids' infatuation with their new equine friends, she said. In Session B, which is open to kids who complete introductory Session A, students will learn more about the parasites that afflict neglected horses, and about horse rescue techniques.
Routine chores are part of all sessions and are a tremendous help to staff members, who are currently caring for 79 abused or neglected horses.
"That number is on the high side; 50 to 70 horses is our normal range," Robertson said, noting that adoptions drop off in summer months.
Treatment runs about $2,500 for the first month of intensive rehab, with costs "dropping drastically" in the months after that, Robertson said.
About 1,500 volunteers help to run Days End, which has a budget of $1.5 million funded by grants, donations and program revenue. Robertson said only 12 percent of the budget is allotted to staff salaries.
About 70 percent of the student volunteers have had some experience with a horse before coming to Days End, 20 percent own a horse and 10 percent have never worked with the animals, Pokorny said. The youths come from Howard and each of the surrounding counties and Baltimore City.
Amy Beall, a Woodbine parent volunteer, said her 12-year-old daughter, Caroline, a member of the current session, didn't know anything about horses until a couple of years ago.
Thanks to previous stints at the horse rescue, "Caroline now walks horses around and is so confident," Beall said. "It does something for your self-confidence all the way around to handle horses since they're so powerful.
"It's wonderful how they train horses there and make them adoptable," she said. Despite the horses' past, "it is definitely a happy place."
Ben Kitt, a rising junior at River Hill High School, is in his third year as a volunteer and qualified this summer to be a Legacy crew leader. He helps supervise the Legacy Program and also serves as an administrative intern.
"I was looking for a summer activity, and I fell in love with this place and never left," he said. "Now we have the manpower to make the farm look spectacular. We get things done early, and there's more time for the horses."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun