Horses4Heroes is a community riding facility located in Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs in North Las Vegas. Thousands of people visit the center each year to ride horses – most of them for the very first time. Horses4Heroes’ mission is to provide affordable recreational and instructional equestrian activities for local heroes and their families. The program caters to military members and veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and other kinds of heroes.
What started as a backyard project 12 years ago has grown far beyond the lights of Las Vegas. Horses4Heroes is now a national nonprofit with 300 affiliate programs at riding centers around the country. Horses4Heroes offers specialty riding programs including Operation Free Ride (for returning combat veterans), HorsePlay (for moms and young children), Ladies Unbridled (for women), kids camps, leadership workshops, birthday parties, and more.
Sydney Knott is the founder and CEO of Horses4Heroes. Her background includes a successful career in public relations, where she racked up numerous industry awards and honors. Now she’s racking up awards and honors for her efforts to connect people with horses. Horses4Heroes is the only two-time winner of the American Horse Council’s Time to Ride Challenge, and last year Sydney received the Equine Industry Vision Award from American Horse Publications. We spent an afternoon with Sydney to learn more about how Horses4Heroes came to be.
Q: You grew up in California. Did you grow up with horses?
A: “Santa Barbara is a town of haves and have-nots. It was hard to be a girl in the 1960s growing up and not watch Gunsmoke and Bonanza and read Misty of Chincoteague and all the wonderful horse books. And what girl doesn’t love horses? I was that little girl, but I was also that little girl that was not in the “have” category. My bicycle was named Blackie and I would take him into the garage to put air in his tire – that was the blacksmith. I went on to have a career and get married and have kids and went through a little bit of a cancer scare… and I just sat down one day and said I’m going to go buy a horse. I wanted a horse my whole life, 42 years old, I’m going to buy a horse.”
Q: And what was that first horse like?
A: “I bought a horse named Misty and that’s why I bought her, because her name was Misty and there was no more to knowing about horses than buying a horse named Misty – like Misty of Chincoteague! Probably one of the worst first horses you could ever have. I mean, I was green as green can be. So green that I didn’t even know what to ask – I said, “Does she like carrots?” I mean I literally did not know what questions to ask when I bought this horse… and paid a good price for her too, I paid more for her than any horse I’ve bought since!”
Q: What brought you to Nevada?
A: “My husband at the time had lived here since he was a young boy and we were not happy with the direction that California was going. We’d been through the Malibu fires, the floods, the Rodney King riots, and then the Northridge earthquake. He had friends here, family here – so we said well if we’re going to leave L.A. let’s go someplace where at least one of us has roots. So we came here in 1994.”
Q: So how did Horses4Heroes begin?
A: “My oldest daughter was at a local high school here, Faith Lutheran, and she couldn’t get into Honors Society because she didn’t have any community service extracurricular or school leadership activities. So I said, what could we do, as a family, with our horses that would be a community service? In the Lutheran schools for some reason, you have a lot of military, a lot of police officers, and a lot of firefighters so a lot of the people that we knew anyway were from that community. So we thought well, why don’t we invite people to our home to ride horses that are military, police, and fire, and we’ll call it Horses4Heroes.”
Q: What was the program like at first?
“We literally started out by having people come over – we’d go to pick up my kids from school and there would be a couple of kids we’d know in after-care and I’d call their parents and I would say ‘Can you pick your kids up from my house because I’m taking your kids to go ride horses.’ We’d have people lead the horses around and then we’d start BBQing and we’d make it kind of a thing. And it was always people who were active duty, police officers, firefighters, and then we expanded into school teachers and nurses.”
Q: How did the program grow?
A: “People would say, well this was fun but how do we learn how to ride horses instead of just being lead around? So we had to find someone who would be willing to come over to our house and give riding lessons. And then they would say, well what can my little kids do while the bigger kids are having a lesson? So I said let’s create a mommy and me toddler class, we can put them on a horse, they can wave at Mommy, get them used to using their body. And it just got bigger and bigger.”
Q: What sort of transformations have you seen in participants?
A: “There’s absolutely no way you can spend any time with a horse and not come away feeling better about yourself. I watched this little girl come out for riding lessons. She was about 12 and she would come out with no body language, very timid. Within two weeks: “Hi Miss Syd! How are you?” Eye contact! Shaking hands! What’s the difference? It’s because you cannot be timid and be around a horse. They make you – shoulders back, head up, eye contact, walk up there. If we could transform that little girl from an awkward, shy girl to a confident, walk on the ranch like a boss – what could we do for veterans? What could we do for domestic violence victims? What could we do for kids?”
Q: What do you think it is about horses that are so powerful in making these transformations in people?
A: “It’s the predator-prey relationship. That predator-prey relationship is, to me, why they are so magical. These animals – we’re predators, they are herbivores – they are hardwired to be afraid of us. So how do you earn this animal’s trust and respect? They don’t just give it up. As you realize, I am the predator, you are the prey, I can’t just come at you – I have to find that spot at which I can get you to relax around me and earn that trust and respect. When you earn it, you just walk away feeling better because you feel like you accomplished something. You feel like you were afraid of this animal and now the animal has responded to you in a positive way. You feel like you’ve conquered this great fear – I hear that all the time.”
Q: How do you fit into the horse community?
A: “I’m not a horse person nor am I military. I’m kind of an anomaly because in this town the horse people are the rodeo people, the Hunter Jumpers, and they’ve been doing it since they were kids, and I come in! And I’m just this person who wants to create affordable horseback riding and I don’t get taken seriously. But the people that I’m trying to market to are the people like my family, that just want to ride horses. They don’t want to own horses, they don’t want to show horses, they just want a place where they can come and learn about and ride horses. And who knows what doors you open when you do that?”
Q: What drives you?
A: “I’ve created a monster and I’ve got to see it through. [laughs] Regardless of all the financial heartaches and all that, I love that there is a place where a child can come. We love our veterans, we love our adults – but this was created for those kids that move every two years, they’re always in a new school, they don’t have friends, constantly on the move. Giving a place where a young child can come and instantly has a best friend and a place they feel safe. That’s what I love, is sharing our love of horses. I’ve loved horses my whole life, but I didn’t get to experience them until recently. Certainly, if there had been something like this when I was a kid, it would have been a life changing experience for me. So to be able to share our love of horses with those who haven’t gotten to see a horse, I think that’s really what I get out of it. How many children have ridden a horse here for the first time, that will always for the rest of their lives, they will be able to say that their first horseback ride was in this park, at Horses4Heroes.”
Learn More: www.horses4heroes.org
Story and Photos by Samantha Szesciorka