The Pony Lady helps horses and teens

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You know her as the Pony Lady of Santa Rosa's Howarth Park, giving countless local toddlers their very first equine rides for almost three decades.

But here's something you probably don't know about Linda Aldrich. In the shadow of her popular pony ride business, The Pony Express, is a struggling nonprofit organization aimed at helping both teens and unwanted horses.

The mostly teenage girls who help nervous kids mount ponies at Howarth Park are part of the Equine Assisted Skills for Youth, or EASY, an internship that evolved from the volunteer opportunities Aldrich has offered local kids for years.

The program not only teaches horsemanship and riding skills, it helps youth build confidence and self-respect during those often difficult teen years, Aldrich said.

Through hard work on the ranch and a regimen of feeding, grooming and caring for the horses, each teen is encouraged to develop a relationship with one or two of the 16 horses and ponies at Aldrich's 6-acre ranch on Sonoma Highway, between Skyhawk and Oakmont.

"Their passion isn't the hard work that comes with the horses, it's the horses," she said. "I have high expectations of these kids because I want them to have high expectations of themselves."

Aldrich, who grew up in Montgomery Village, has been a lifelong equine lover. When she was 8 years old, she volunteered at the Howarth Park pony corral. Her parents bought her a horse when she was 12, and from that point on horses would always be a part of her life.

In 1982, Aldrich took over the Howarth Park pony corral, starting out with only two ponies. The job was anything but lucrative in the beginning, and Aldrich continued to work as a waitress while operating the pony ride for the first five years.

Her knowledge of horses quickly turned into a strong desire to teach. On the recommendation of an SRJC faculty member, Aldrich returned to school in the late 1980s, studying equine science at SRJC and receiving bachelors and masters degrees at Sonoma State University.

Between 1999 and 2009, Aldrich taught riding and equine business management at SRJC.

Aldrich has been trying to subsidize the operation of her non-profit EASY program through the proceeds from The Pony Express rides at Howarth Park. In the two years since the non-profit was started, she said she has received no significant donations or contributions.

"My operating expenses alone run about $25,000 a year," said Aldrich.

On Wednesday, Jamie Buck, a 13-year-old Rincon Valley Charter School student, was riding Lily, a 10-year-old retired race horse.

"I was scared of horses when I first started working here," Jamie said. "That went away after the first day."

Inside a wooden horse and pony shelter with a corrugated metal roof, the interns have painted sentiments and messages describing their relationships with their equine friends. Jamie's homage is to Lily and a pony named Kendall.

The kids pay about $100 a year to participate in the internship. But that does not begin to cover the cost of running the program.

Using equine references, as she often will, Aldrich said her "program essentially needs a big financial leg up in order to keep trotting down the road."

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