Friday, June 17, 2016

Horse and Rider Connection teaches life skills through building relationships with horses - By Elizabeth Richards

Horse and Rider Connection (HARC) is much more than a simple summer camp program. The organization offers programs designed to change the lives of teens who are struggling.
Debbie Little is the owner and operator of the non-profit HARC, which was formerly based in Cumberland, but now operates in Poland. The mission of HARC is “to pair Mustangs and rescued horses with teens and young adults facing challenges to help them develop and improve life skills.” Although most of the programs are geared towards teenagers, HARC will work with all ages, Little said. 

Program participants train and work with the horses to help them find their forever homes. “It’s a place for us to bring in horses and for them to learn to trust people again, and in doing so the teenagers learn to trust people and they learn life skills by doing so. I’ve seen some miracles work out through here, a lot of things just happen here. It’s a safe haven for kids,” Little said. 

Little is a PATH certified instructor, and has been working with horses since she was eight years old. She organized HARC as a non-profit in 2009, but has been working with young people and horses for much longer.

HARC is a true labor of love for Little – she is not paid for the time she puts into the programs. She operates with the guidance of a volunteer board, and hopes to find funding in the future to keep the programs going and hire some staff. Little said the program brings in just enough funding to take care of the horses currently, but is working with a business coach to help the nonprofit grow. She’d like to get more involved with local schools, and has also worked with adolescents from Long Creek.

Little said she doesn’t want cost to be a barrier to participation in the program, and she’s trying to reach out to kids who can’t afford it. “We give a lot away because these kids need it, they really do,” she said. “I’ve seen kids that are really tough kids come through the program, and they change,” she said.

The horses used for HARC programs come to them through both the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals in Windham and a wild Mustang program. In addition to some week long summer camp programs, HARC offers a five week intensive program in the summer called “The Maine Mustang and Rescue Project.” In this program, teens train wild mustangs and rescue horses, some that have never been touched by humans previously. The focus of this program is to use the horses to build trust and healthy relationships.

Little said she wants people to know about HARC in case there are people out there who need the help she can provide. She also wants people to know that she needs volunteers, board members and donors. 

“That’s been our hugest setback, getting the funding to feed these animals and keep the programs going,” she said. “But I’ll do it, no matter what,” she added.

In working with the horses, participants learn a broad range of skills and lessons. They learn to breathe in order to calm a horse, which can later help them breathe through a tough situation. They learn about the dynamics of bullying, about leadership, history, math, communication and journaling, said Little. Students are allowed to do everything on their own timing, she added. “You find a threshold and you’re learning when you get out of your comfort zone, so we take them to the edge of their comfort zone. We don’t push them, and we don’t push horses over their comfort zone, we build on that,” she said.

Little said she doesn’t know of other programs doing what she does. “I work with kids that are getting lost through the cracks,” she said. “I’m willing to do it because the kids need it, because I’ve seen lives change.” That includes the lives of horses, who are able to get good homes after being trained through the program. 

For more information on HARC or to get involved, contact or visit

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