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News.bytesNews.bytes Extra, issue 417

Wild horses and mules help youngsters find purpose, build character

“There’s nothing better for the inside of a kid than the outside of a horse.” -Will Rogers. 

BLM Ranger Reid Hopkins has used the belief that horses build character to help hundreds of at-risk youth become productive citizens. (story continues below)

Reid Hopkins supervises as Amber Woolwine drives a wagon pulled by mules.
Reid Hopkins suypervises as Amber Woolwine drives a wagon pulled by
mules gathered from public lands under BLM's wild horse and burro program.

Hopkins, a BLM Bakersfield employee, has used horses and mules, including some gathered from BLM land, for more than three decades to help youth headed for trouble turn their lives around. With 10 participants in the program each year, that adds up to more than 300 youngsters who have ridden the trails with Hopkins.

The program, which teaches equine and backcountry skills, is aimed at youngsters 11 to 17 who aren’t in trouble but are headed that way, Hopkins explained. “We teach them success comes from hard work, period,” he said. “You need to set goals and go for it.”

The annual program starts in January and finishes in May when they participate in the Bishop Mule Days. Youngsters learn how to ride and pack, care for the animals and behave in the backcountry. “Leave no trace” ethics and safety are taught during a pack trip into the Golden Trout and John Muir wildernesses. “We’ve had kids who had never been out of a 16-square-block area in their lives,” he said. “Some of them had never been fishing.”

Current packing equipment is used as well as equipment that would have been used by the 7th Cavalry. “We emphasize the historical side of packing,” he said, using it as an educational tool on western history.

Five years ago, Hopkins and his wife, Eileen, established 1 Spade Youth Packers as an umbrella organization for the youth program. The program is largely supported by the Kern River Valley Rotary Club and is operated at no cost to the youth or their families.

Hopkins and others follow up with the youth following the five-month program to help them continue their education or find jobs. “Two of them are welders in the Taft oil fields. They learned to tie the knots they use in the oil fields while packing.” Others have found jobs based on their experience such as packing or shoeing horses.

For the last fifteen years, the program winds up at Bishop Mule Days. The youth represent Rotary in the parade with BLM wild horse and burro mules and take part in competition, with 93 entries in 2009. “It helps promote the wild horse and burro program,” Hopkins said. (story continues below)

A boy in a modern-day chariot races with two mules
Cody Lyons charges down the straightaway in the chariot race at Bishop Mule Days.

Two of the key players in the event are Ike and Mike, mules gathered from BLM land in Nevada and trained by inmates at Lerdo in Kern County. The mules are owned by Jack and Sharon McGee, who are supporters of the program.

Ike and Mike are used in competition including chariot racing, chuckwagon racing, chariot barrel racing and steer roping from a chariot. The 1 Spade team took second in the barrel race in 2009 and teams also have taken reserve grand champion in teamster competition, world champion in the obstacle course, and second and third in the 400-yard races.

The inspiration for the youth program came from Hopkins’ own experience as an out-of-control youth from a rough household. “I was headed for trouble and one guy showed me the way out. This is my way of giving something back,” he said.

A boy drives a chariot pulled by mules, while a man readies a rope for roping
Matt McDonald ropes and Cody Lyons drives the chariot in the steer
roping event.

A man drives a chariot pulled by mules
Matt McDonald drives a chariot in competition at Mule Days.

 Wider view of man and girl in wagon, with mules towing
Amber Woolwine carefully guides mules around the arena in Bishop.

- David Christy, BLM Central California District, 1/22/10

BLM-California News.bytes, issue 417

Last updated: 01-27-2010