NAPLES – After receiving calls over the years from parents asking if their children could clean stalls in exchange for horseback riding lessons, stable owner Karen Swaim decided she needed to somehow make her horses available to these kids.

Now she has launched her long-held dream of offering lessons to children from low-income families.

“I have a lot of kids who want to do this, but the families can’t afford it,” Swaim said recently while sitting in her living room, dressed in jodhpurs, her humongous dog Teddy snoozing nearby.

Swaim said that while there are many programs and funding opportunities for special education students and disabled children, the more average kids who are not scholastic stars or athletic superheros sometimes get overlooked.

Her program, called Successful Dreams Equestrian Center, is geared toward 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds who are not participating in after-school sports or other school activities, and who might need something extra to latch onto to strengthen their identities. Sometimes, though, with parents struggling to pay heating bills, it is hard to justify splurging on extracurriculars.

“As a widow, I raised my own child and I understand you just can’t go out every week and pay money like that,” Swaim said. “It’s your grocery money.” Her son is now 24 and is in the Air National Guard.

Swaim has owned Secret Acres Stables on Lambs Mill Road in Naples for 16 years. She has 11 horses and boards five more.

For two years she tossed around the idea of a riding program for lower-income children. This year she was able to launch Successful Dreams because of an unexpected windfall: a $40,000 donation from the House of Lights store in Scarborough. The owner’s daughter works at the stable.

But to eventually expand the program to 24 students, Swaim will require $80,000 a year, or $3,500 for each student.

“The hope for Successful Dreams will be to find support in our community,” said Joan Moore, a board member. “But we will be open for other funding, government funding, and we need a grant writer.”

After receiving the $40,000 donation, Swaim approached Lake Region Middle School with her idea.

School administrators responded with enthusiasm and asked teachers to recommend students. Many other students expressed interest as well.

“It is students who typically don’t engage in typical student activities. We’re looking for ways to get them more engaged in school and activities,” Assistant Principal Frank Setter said. “They need to keep up their grades and make sure their behavior is OK, so they don’t have to stay after work.”

“It’s more memorable than Nintendo,” Swaim said. “It has more value than playing video games.”

Eight middle-school students have been selected for the once-a-week riding lessons that will continue for the remainder of the school year. After Christmas, four more pupils will be invited to join. Eventually, Swaim said she would like to open the program to children beyond the Lake Region area.

The students meet for two hours after school. For the first hour, half the group receives riding lessons while the other half does barn chores or learns about horses and horse care.

Two instructors are paid for the lessons, and Swaim helps out as well.

Swaim, who has been around horses since she was five, said horseback riding has many benefits, and the growing number of therapeutic riding programs around the country testify to the popular theory that horses help disabled and troubled children.

Swaim also pointed out that riding is a good activity for kids who are not attracted to traditional sports.

“It builds a lot of self-esteem, a lot of confidence,” she said. “Riding is more a competition with yourself. Being in tune with an animal, coming together as horse and rider – it takes a long time to develop these skills.”

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