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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Pam Connelly-Castle works with Megan Schambers before Schambers takes her first solo ride in the arena of the Ride With Faith stables near Columbia City.

Caring for horses helps at-risk kids turn lives around

Amber Hoopengardner, front, walked to the riding arena as Megan Schambers leads Snazzi to the arena for her riding lesson at the Ride With Faith grounds on Thursday.
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Pam Connelly-Castle says Ride With Faith is struggling. “We’re hoping some philanthropist will help us,” she says.
Connelly- Castle

– It’s a tough morning for Pam Connelly-Castle.

The night before, someone spotted a funnel cloud near the courthouse three miles away. The rain was violent and, as it did nearly everywhere else in northeast Indiana, wreaked havoc on her property.

She awoke to flooded horse stables in the arena she had originally built for what she now calls selfish reasons.

“It’s a huge problem,” she says of the water, which can cause a bacterial problem called thrush in the hooves of horses.

“Horses can’t stand in water. The last thing I need is thrushy horses,” she said.

So with the help of three teenagers under her care, Connelly-Castle began the long and laborious struggle of clearing out the water and turning over the dirt.

And in her world, a struggle seems to be about the only way to ever get things done.

A rambunctious child of divorced parents, someone who suffered a breakdown in her 30s and who lost her job twice as the economy collapsed five years ago, Connelly-Castle has always been in search of what she was supposed to do in life.

Now, she feels she found it.

She created the nonprofit Ride With Faith organization, which works with local youths and adults who are at-risk, disadvantaged, troubled or have suffered some type of trauma.

Nearly every day, she takes children who might have suffered abuse or have mental problems and teaches them how to care for and ride horses, giving those kids a sense of responsibility and a way to cope with whatever problems they may be having.

But even now, as she finds her calling in helping others, she’s still scratching by and trying to keep her organization alive.

And the word “struggle” is ever present.

“We’re really, really struggling right now, even though we’re doing the right thing and in the right way, accomplishing something out here,” she said.

“We’re hoping some philanthropist will help us.”

‘I couldn’t win’

Now in her 50s, Connelly-Castle was born into a prominent family in the LaGrange community, she said.

Her parents divorced when she was 10, and in a place where divorce was looked at as a shameful.

“That was huge in my life,” Connelly-Castle says. “I was really angry about it.”

She later served in the Army and then went through a bitter divorce, leading to what she described as a breakdown when she was 33.

And while she never suffered trauma similar to that of the children she now sees, all those experiences and the anger they produced help her see where these kids are coming from.

“I know exactly where they’re at,” she says.

For years she worked as a materials manager for a corporation, she said, but like many jobs leading up to the economic downturn, it soon vanished.

She languished in unemployment for awhile but then found a new job. But that, too, soon disappeared.

“I couldn’t win,” Connelly-Castle said. “I argued with God every day. I told him, ‘You better get me something to do. You better get me something to do.’ ”

She began looking at her options, taking stock of her life and re-evaluating her lifelong love of horses.

And she felt God gave her something to do.

‘And it happened’

After he divorced her mother, Connelly-Castle’s father bought her a $25 gelding named Brandy.

The horse’s name came from a 1972 rock song recorded by the band Looking Glass.

Connelly-Castle now had a passion.

She has hardly been without a horse since, and in fact built an entire horse arena on her farm in 2005 to practice riding and jumping her Arabian, which she would take to horse shows.

“It taught me about respect for something else,” she now says of her first horse.

So, once she lost her job for a second time, she began to wonder whether she could instill that sense of respect in others.

Horses have been used in various therapies throughout the years, she said. Why not use them to help others as she had been helped before?

Connelly-Castle came up with the idea of her nonprofit and quickly began speaking with people she knew – especially lawyer friends – about its possibility.

Many discouraged her, she said.

The time, energy and money to even create the organization and get it off the ground was staggering.

Not to mention the paperwork, she said.

But like everything else, she said she faced it head-on, with help from her husband, who thought she was crazy.

“Everyone said it would never happen, and it happened within, like, six months,” she says.

She began contacting local judges and elected officials in the area about her project. She called schools and guidance counselors.

She contacted mental health facilities, asking whether this was something they’d be interested in trying, whther they’d be willing to send any children out to her farm.

Connelly-Castle even went through training to become licensed in respite care through the state of Indiana, she said.

And in 2008, Ride With Faith opened its doors.

Success stories

Kyle is a 16-year-old boy who wears black jeans, a black T-shirt and a ball cap to the horse stables one day this month.

He’s been coming to Connelly-Castle’s farm for about six weeks and is now helping her get the water out of her stables.

Kyle has to help or he won’t be able to do any riding later in the afternoon.

“He got a 95 percent in physics,” Connelly-Castle said with pride and admiration. “These kids, they are so smart.”

She doesn’t go into specifics about why Kyle is there to see her or why he began coming to her farm.

She is just glad he is there.

“These kids all have some type of trauma, they just don’t necessarily know what to do about it,” she says.

Since creating her nonprofit, she has seen children as young as 3 years old and adults as old as 70, though she mainly deals with kids.

The organization is a Medicaid waiver provider but also accepts clients without Medicaid.

Connelly-Castle also admits she has seen children for free at times, though she knows that is contributing to her struggles of staying in operation.

“I didn’t want money to come between me and these kids,” she said. “I want any child who is in need to have access to an alternative therapy, if possible, because many kids don’t respond well in a tiny room with an adult they don’t know.”

Many of the children she sees lash out at home or in school, Connelly-Castle said.

They don’t know how to communicate their feelings, or they don’t communicate in the ways others do.

Connelly-Castle said she uses her horses, some of which are rescues and have had traumatic experiences themselves, to give these kids a responsibility outside themselves.

Just like her first horse gave her.

And when she sees the children and horses bond, when the horses begin to trust the children, there’s no better feeling, she said.

“These horses can’t talk about their traumatic experiences,” Connelly-Castle said. “You have to listen to them.

“ When the kids start realizing that, and then start realizing the horse is trusting them, even though this happened in its life, it’s really cool to watch.”

“I can sit here and watch it all day,” she continued.

Her stable is full of success stories.

One girl who began coming to her was deathly afraid of animals, but now, three years later, jumps horses all the time.

An autistic girl couldn’t even lift a saddle, much less get up on a horse, but now she’s riding all the time, sometimes without a saddle, Connelly-Castle said.

And these are the stories that keep Connelly-Castle going, even if it means a constant struggle to stay afloat as a non-profit organization.

Besides, the struggle is what she’s been doing all her life.