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Former Marine harnesses the power of horses to help inner-city youth

Patricia Kelly started Ebony Horsewomen after experiencing the therapeutic power of horses. Kaitlin Marron for ESPN

When Patricia Kelly was 9 years old, she and her family moved to an all-white neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. It was the 1950s, and they didn't feel welcome. Neighbors, outraged at the prospect of a black family living on their street, tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get the home's seller to rescind the sale.

Shortly after moving in, Kelly watched as a group of angry neighbors congregated in front of her house. She remembers hoping her mother wouldn't notice the crowd as she peered from a hidden spot on the side of the house. Suddenly, she heard a "Psshhhh" coming from the yard next door.

"I turned and I looked, and there was this big white guy looking at me, and I said to myself, 'I live next door to Santa Claus,'" she says, remembering that day. "He was fat, he had this white beard and this red nose, and he had the sweetest little eyes. It was a real-life Santa Claus. He said to me, 'Little girl, you don't need to hear that, come here.'

"He was standing next to the biggest horse -- maybe the only horse -- I had ever seen in person. He asked if I liked the horse, and I nodded, and he said, 'Come.' I crawled through the fence, and he handed me a brush. It was a wrap."

The encounter marked the beginning of Kelly's lifelong obsession with horses. It was also the first moment she realized the animal held therapeutic power.

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Today, Kelly is the founder and CEO of the Ebony Horsewomen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with Hartford's youth by providing horseback riding lessons and equine-assisted therapy. The program works with more than 60 children during the school year and at least double that number in the summer.

Located just four blocks from Kelly's childhood home in Hartford's North End neighborhood, Ebony Horsewomen's barns are surrounded by houses and apartment buildings, and are situated near a bustling commercial area. They're the former home for Hartford's mounted police unit, and constitute an unusual place for a horse farm. But the location of the property has allowed the program to be a part of the community it is trying to serve.

With 13 horses, three roaming cats, two (caged) ferrets and a handful of other animals -- including rabbits and chickens that the students help to breed and care for -- the barns certainly don't feel like they're in the middle of the city. When not working with children, the horses quietly graze in the large outdoor pens, or are worked on by an equine masseuse on select days.

Kelly's office is in the main barn where the stables are located, and a "Cowgirl Parking Only" sign indicates her parking spot outside. While Kelly would like to be spending her time with the children (who almost always greet her with an enthusiastic "Hi, Ms. Kelly!"), she's frequently stuck in her office to work on administrative tasks.

Ebony Horsewomen is one of several programs throughout the country catered to providing equine therapy to inner-city youth. The therapy is credited with helping a variety of psychological, physical and emotional issues, and a 2014 study published in the American Psychological Association's Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin reported that children who spend time with horses have lower levels of stress hormones.

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Kelly learned to ride from the neighbor who invited her into his barn that day. She became mesmerized with horses and the cowboy lifestyle, and enthralled by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and fictional character Hopalong Cassidy. She watched their television programs religiously every Saturday morning.

She joined the Marines as a young woman, frequently riding the trails surrounding Camp Pendleton in California, where she was stationed. She later moved back to Hartford, got married and focused on raising her young family. While focusing on other parts of her life, she went years without climbing into a saddle.

But when her marriage ended in divorce, she was determined to start riding again.

Through a now-defunct group called the Ebony Horsemen, she met a local business owner in the early 1980s who had a farm and three horses. Kelly, and several of her friends going through equally challenging times, began visiting the barn every day.

"All of us were working very hard, some had two jobs, we had all been married, now divorced, and were just trying not to have nervous breakdowns," she says. "The horses were therapy for the women. There were times I was so stressed, I would get up and go to the barn in the middle of the night, and I would get there and there would be cars outside. And there would be women inside crying, talking to their horses and trying to get some relief. It was apparent to us early on that horses had this ability to heal."

This was the inception of Ebony Horsewomen. The new group moved into a barn in Hartford, and in their spare time, Kelly and her friends would bring horses to schools, housing projects, various parades and other neighborhood activities around the city.

Kelly could see the effects that merely seeing and interacting with a horse had on children. For many who struggled with poverty in the city, which had experienced a drastic socioeconomic shift since Kelly's childhood, it provided a refuge of sorts.

"When we first started, kids from the community came in droves," Kelly says. "A lot of these kids had issues in school, but when they got here with the horses and outdoors and working with these animals, a lot of the anger and depression and despair and anxiety that they were holding began to dissipate."

Kelly quit her job at a law firm in 1999 and made the Ebony Horsewomen her full-time job. The group moved into its current location the same year. The organization now offers a variety of programs, including a saddle club, a dressage team and a Junior Mounted Patrol, in which a group of teenage boys act as rangers at a local park and look out for suspicious activity.

Open seven days a week, children can also interact with the other animals -- they do everything from collecting eggs from the chickens to aiding autopsies on deceased animals -- or work in the vegetable garden. The group has a kitchen of donated appliances where participants can watch recipe demonstrations using the grown produce. With just one grocery store and countless fast-food options, Kelly considers the North End of Hartford a "food desert," and stresses the importance of consuming healthy food to the children.

The organization also receives referrals from various organizations, including the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, for children with behavioral problems or youth labeled "at risk" -- a term Kelly says she hates and thinks is too often used for children who just don't have the proper outlets for their energy and emotions. With the help of two social workers -- both of whom have certificates in equine therapy on staff -- the Ebony Horsewomen have seen children deemed as such turn their lives around after working with the horses.

Kelly says horses are prey animals with incredible instincts, and claims they are able to pick up on a person's internal feelings even when that person isn't outwardly displaying them.

"When you present to a horse a child that has a lot of chaos or anger within them, that horse has the ability to pick up on that and does not want to be anywhere near them," she said. "There are a lot of kids who come who are as sweet and non-assuming as you can imagine, but they have a lot of turmoil going on inside. They have learned how to mask it. But they can't mask it from the horse because the horse can't understand language, but they do understand and can pick up when there's that anger or despair or depression.

"If the horse isn't behaving or won't let the child ride them, we have to ask the child, 'Why do you think that is? What's going on in your mind and spirit? You don't need to tell me, but you have to change your mind for 10 minutes and think about something that makes you happy.' If we can get the child to do that, the horse immediately makes the change and then we can get that child to see by changing your mind and your attitude, you can change your environment."

Kelly believes this mindset translates to the world outside of the barn for many of her students. "We can't change any of the crap going on in their lives, but we can change how they respond to it."

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Indrek Walker was a self-admitted couch potato as a child, and his grandmother brought him to the Ebony Horsewomen when he was 11 in hopes that he'd do something that didn't involve watching television. He started visiting the barn every day and ultimately received a scholarship to Johnson & Wales University, where he was a member of the equestrian team.

Graduating in 2014, Walker now works full time at a riding barn in Dedham, Massachusetts, and competes professionally. He tries to return to the Ebony Horsewomen whenever he can -- including paying a visit to its annual spring show last month, where he served as a judge.

"Ms. Kelly is like my other grandmother," he said. "She's the most amazing woman and has been there for me through thick and thin. I honestly have no idea what I would be doing today without [the Ebony Horsewomen]. This program is home. It's my heart."

Fellow program alumni Dijon Brooks, who started with the Ebony Horsewomen when he was 9, also returned for the horse show. After competing for Alfred University's equestrian team for two years, he's now 24 and works as a mechanic in Maryland. He made the six-hour drive to the event simply to show his support.

"Ms. Kelly created opportunity where there wasn't any," he said. "If this wasn't here, a lot of kids, myself included, never would have had these chances, or even ever interacted with a horse. I never would have been on an equestrian team, or show a horse, or gotten the chances to go to other states to compete. There's a whole list of things I never would have been able to do or experience or see without her and this place."

While Kelly is proud of what her organization has achieved, she's quick to pass the credit to all of the children she and her staff have helped along the way.

"It's been very rewarding. Many of these kids have gone on to college. Some are attorneys and social workers, teachers, entrepreneurs, just good citizens. I would love to say it's because of me, but it's because of these horses.

"It's magic, like voodoo, what the relationship with these animals can do."