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Katie Zinke uses her lifelong passion to assist underserved communities

On a recent 60° day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Katie Zinke took a few minutes to speak with the Mosquito via Zoom about what she has been doing since she left Concord-Carlisle High S chool (CCHS) in 2017.

After graduating from CCHS, Katie headed south to attend Elon University in North Carolina where she majored in biology with a minor in poverty and social justice. “I found that my real passion is at the intersection of these two areas, healthcare and underserved communities,” said Katie. Over her four years at Elon, she found a variety of ways to explore her interests through various volunteer opportunities that included a trip to Panama. As part of the Global Medical Brigade, Katie participated on what she described as a “pop-up clinic trip” where she assisted physicians at medical clinics in underserved communities.

During spring of her junior year, Katie took a semester abroad to study in New Zealand. “Elon has great study abroad programs—it was an awesome trip. As a biology major my schedule was pretty credit-heavy, so I was on a strict path and had to take a lot of science classes towards my major,” she explained. “I did find time to do some fun stuff like go hiking, skydiving, and ride some horses, but my semester was cut short because of COVID and I had to come home.” Katie left New Zealand after just six weeks, ten weeks short of the 16 she had planned, but she does look forward to going back at some point.

Making the most of a bad situation

“When I had to come back from New Zealand, I needed something to do,” Katie recalled. “I came back from this amazing experience and was still taking classes over Zoom, but I had so much down time after having gone from literally exploring a new country to just being home.” Katie came back to Carlisle to ride out the first wave of the pandemic, and started brainstorming what she could do with her time. As a lifelong horse enthusiast, Katie had an idea for a way to use horses to help at-risk youth. Suddenly she had the time to sit down and try to figure out how to make it happen.

Discovering her love for horses

Katie said her mother encouraged her to get involved with horses at a very young age, and the family even took vacations on dude ranches to try to spur her interest. “I’ve been riding since I was seven,” she recalled. “I started at Lucky Rooster Farm down the street in Carlisle. They taught me how to do everything, like put a halter on the horse, how to catch the horse in the field, how to feed them, how to groom them.”

As her passion blossomed, her parents supported that growth, leasing a horse for Katie on her tenth birthday. “Her name was Fancy and she dumped me more times than I can count, but I have learned how to stay on,” Katie laughed.

Katie stayed on at Lucky Rooster Farm through the beginning of high school when the barn owner helped her find April, her current horse. “April was sort of a project horse. She was younger and hadn’t had a lot done with her, so she was sort of a clean slate to grow up and build on.” Katie worked with April to build her foundation and eventually started riding her. “It’s cool now to see that my hard work paid off when I can pretty much put anyone on her and walk her around the ring.”

When Katie wanted to bring April to Elon, she had to “battle” with her parents to persuade them. “I really had to think about the why I wanted her at school,” in order to convince them it was worth the cost. The why, it turned out, was because the barn and the horses have become a safe place for Katie. “The barn community is a big part of who I am. I have the opportunity to learn and grow at the barn differently than I do in the classroom or at home. I’m in my happy place when I’m on the back of a horse or at the barn cleaning stalls or feeding. I really find myself at peace there.”

Inspiration for a horsemanship program With a better understanding of how horses and working at the barn has impacted her life, Katie decided to try to share that feeling with other people who may not otherwise have the opportunity. “Personally I think every kid should have the opportunity to ride, to be around horses, at least to try it. They gain responsibility, confidence, and so many other skills that people don’t realize when they see a person riding a horse in a ring. For every hour of fun you have, it’s four hours of work. For young people, it’s good to instill that responsibility in them.”

Katie had some experience teaching riding lessons to children, but she wanted to find a way to bring her skills to an at-risk youth group. “Because my minor was in poverty and social justice, I had worked with at-risk youth and realized they might benefit more by learning responsibility and gaining confidence in a very different kind of atmosphere.” In order to put her idea to work, Katie needed kids, a barn, and horses.

Putting the pieces together Katie first reached out to the Positive Attitude Youth Center in Burlington, NC. The center had worked with Elon students in the past and was amenable to new collaborations. “I chose to work with the youth center because their students don’t come from dangerous households, but mostly need more structure and a safe place to go after school. I saw it as a really good opportunity to give them a chance to do something they may never have a chance to do. I proposed the idea to them and they were enthusiastic.” After finding students, Katie was tasked with finding a barn to host the program. “Finding people who would allow us to use their horses was no simple task. I originally thought that wouldn’t even be possible until I had my own barn.”

During her first two years at Elon, Katie had volunteered at a therapeutic riding barn and developed a relationship with one of the riding instructors, Elle Kimsey. “I really got to know Elle and liked how she taught.” As Katie started to develop her program in the spring of junior year, she reached out to Elle for input on the idea and to see if she would like to get involved. “She emailed back in all capital letters, ‘YES, I WOULD LOVE TO.’” Katie secured Elle’s barn and the use of her horses, as well as Elle’s experience as an instructor so they could work together with the kids in the program. All of the pieces had fallen into place.

Katie initiated a pilot program in Summer 2020 with four students. Since then she has expanded the program to have anywhere from four to seven students come to the barn once a week for a month, with a new crop of students every five to six weeks. “The older kids want to keep coming back, so if we have enough hands to monitor all of the kids at the barn, we have them back.”

Sessions generally run after school from 3 to 5 p.m., beginning with a short discussion period where the instructors will talk about themes for the week: teamwork, respect, and communication are common topics. “During the first half hour we have a group discussion where we lay out ground rules for the session, followed by an hour or so of working with horses.” Katie said students may learn how to put a harness on during the first week, how to brush a horse and the different kinds of brushes in the second week, but usually do not get on the horses until week three or four.

“In the first week many kids don’t want to touch the horses,” Katie explained. “It’s intimidating to think about how to work with this big animal that doesn’t have to do what you want. We always start out by using Cookie, a pony that’s smaller than most of the kids so they are less afraid.”

After working with the horses for about an hour, the kids return for a debriefing where they talk about what they learned and how they can apply some of those new skills to their relationships with friends, family, and school. Some days they just work with the horses until 5 p.m. Katie said Positive Attitude Youth Center has been pleasantly surprised with her results. “They tell me that they didn’t think the kids would love it as much as they do.”

What’s next After graduation in May, Katie decided to reside in North Carolina. “I really like the area, the community. I already have a barn community here and have met new people in the horse world. I’m really glad I stayed—I love it here.”

While the horsemanship program is on winter hiatus, Katie and Elle are taking time now to figure out how to make the program sustainable in the future, looking at staffing, scheduling, fundraising, and more before new sessions begin in late February or early March.

Katie freely admits that horses will always be part of her life. “I’ve learned that I have a lot of tools in my toolbox so I can work with lots of horses including rescues or troubled animals. It feels really good to help them get to a better place.”

Currently Katie is looking for a full-time job, likely in case management. She plans to go back to school for a Master’s degree, but is not sure whether she will pursue public health, biology, or scientific research. In the meantime she is working part-time at a barn in Durham and took an internship with a local horse trainer who is starting some young horses. “I would love to have my own barn some day and run a lesson program,” Katie said. “I don’t want to have to make money at it—I just want to do it because I love it!”

Published February 22, 2022 in the Carlisle Mosquito.

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