Lesson horses Tempest, in the foreground, with Brady, left, Mahogany, and Cruiser in the background, photographed by Maria Mucha.

The horse, of course, is the main attraction at the Mercer County Park Commission’s stables — currently in the second phase of both the COVID-19 related reopening and renovations to the main barn, lounge, and restrooms.

In addition to traditional riding lessons as well as pony and trail rides, when in full operation the stables offer its notable adaptive riding lessons, equine-assisted psychotherapy, and lessons for area children in need.

There are also tours for children who just want to learn about horses, whether at ground level or atop them, and even an equine-themed, barrier-free playground next to the barns.

Those who may not be seeking an equine experience can enjoy Curlis Woods, with its trails for hiking or horseback riding, which surround the stables. For gardeners, Mercer Educational Gardens is located onsite.

Nestled on 243 acres of Mercer Meadows in Pennington, Mercer Stables is a well-equipped equestrian facility that features 50 horse stalls; one indoor and two outdoor rings; two grooming stalls; two tack and feed rooms; and four wash stalls.

Stables director Christine Cardinal spent 30 years in the equine business, owning, training, and caring for pleasure and race horses, before she came to the stables. She says, “I have loved horses ever since I can remember. My first job at a horse farm was cleaning stalls at 13 years old. Although brief, it solidified my passion for horses.”

Youth from The Children’s Home Society’s Positive Impact Program participating in Mercer County Stables’ H.A.Y. After-school Program. Photo by Ed Butler.

Cardinal most enjoys “making a difference in a child’s or family’s life as a result of their participation in our programs.” The stables provide adaptive riding lessons for individuals with learning, physical, or emotional disabilities by certified instructors. “The same riding skills are taught during an adaptive riding lesson as in a typical riding lesson,” Cardinal says. “The difference is in the method of teaching those skills, and sometimes the riding tack and equipment needs to be adapted to suit each student’s needs.”

Adaptive riding students gain more than riding skills. “Even though adaptive riding is not a physical therapy session, riding a horse; interacting with the horse, staff, and volunteers; and learning and accomplishing riding skills may help participants reach their cognitive, physical, emotional, social, and behavioral goals,” Cardinal says.

Each lesson costs $40 and is offered to children age four and up. “The student’s disability is always taken into consideration,” Cardinal notes.

The stables also offer Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). Cardinal describes it as “a mental health session with a licensed and equine assisted certified clinical therapist, a certified equine specialist, and one or more horses working as a team to address the client’s mental health goals. EAP may be a good alternative to traditional talk therapy for some clients, or if talk therapy is not working.” These are not riding lessons. “Ground-based sessions are conducted in the barn or in the riding ring. We follow the EAGALA (Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model.”

Horses are well suited to assist with therapy. EAGALA’s website explains that these prey animals have evolved to be extremely sensitive to their environment. “They instinctively analyze and react to our body language and other nonverbal cues, providing us with valuable feedback and insights. Their large size also makes it hard to ignore their presence and can help us reflect on how to approach our relationships and other big and overwhelming things in our lives. Horses are social animals with defined roles in their herd. They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods. In other words, horses are a lot like us.”

Youth from The Children’s Home Society’s Positive Impact Program participating in Mercer County Stables’ H.A.Y. After-school Program. Photo by Ed Butler.

Youth organizations that want to build emotional resilience and healthy behaviors in their members can register for the Power Tools for Living program at the stables. Its five-week sessions are ground-based and follow the EAGALA model.

Cardinal and her staff also enjoy introducing horses to children who otherwise might not get the opportunity to interact with them. She says the stables’ Horses and Youth (HAY) program was developed “specifically for children from underserved areas of Mercer County. This equine-based educational and recreational program began in January, 2005, with an afterschool program for six children from the Trenton area. It stemmed from the mission of Dorothy E. Katz and the Hopewell Valley Reading and Recreation Fund in partnership with the Mercer County Extension Office/Rutgers Cooperative 4-H Youth Development.”

During the HAY afterschool program, children have a riding lesson and learn about horses and their care. The program also includes informational or educational tours, summer camp visits, and school visits with a pony.

Cardinal says since its inception HAY Programs have been free to participants thanks to funding provided by the already mentioned Katz fund, administered through the Princeton Area Community Foundation, and supporters.

Another program, the Equine Education Tours, allows participants to learn about the stables’ animals in a classroom setting and then groom and tack a horse or pony. They can also go on a pony or horse ride with a bit of riding instruction. This program is also offered to scouts or other groups of children aged 8 to 13 years for $22 per child.

The Stables’ Equine Informational Tour is similar, but shorter and available to younger children. “It starts with a 45-minute interactive presentation where participants learn about the stables and how the horses are cared for,” Cardinal says. “A tour of the barns concludes the session.” These tours cost $5 per child. For an additional $3 per child, children can groom and tack a pony or horse and ride them around the ring with assistance. These tours are available to groups of preschool-aged children and up.

The stables usually also offer traditional one-hour English riding lessons for all levels of school-aged riders. These eight-week sessions cost $368 for group lessons, $448 for semi-private, $480 for private, or $560 for advanced level private lessons. “Riders can register for a single, or open, lesson during any of the above sessions,” Cardinal says. These cost $46 for group, $56 for semi-private, $60 for private, and $70 for advanced private open lessons.

No riding experience is necessary for pony or trail rides. Children aged two to ten can enjoy a 10-minute pony ride for $15. For an additional $20, children ages four and up can also groom and tack their pony before the ride, and remove tack after the ride, with assistance. Trail rides cost $35 per person for a half hour or $60 for an hour.

The Whoa and Go Mercer County 4-H Horse Club also calls Mercer Stables home. Club members meet once a month to learn about owning and working with horses. There is no fee to join or participate in the club. Contact Mercer County 4-H for information and registration.

Whether you’re on foot or horseback, you can traverse Curlis Woods’ trails. The Woods’ northern end is bordered by the horse pastures and trails extend southwest to Main Street in Pennington. This 116-acre site was the first land preserved by the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space in 1993, after six years of grassroots efforts.

Those who have, or wish they had, a green thumb, will enjoy Mercer Educational Gardens. The gardens feature a wetland meadow restored with native grasses and wildflowers. There are seven types of display gardens (annual, butterfly, cottage, herb, native plant, perennial, and weed identification) here, as well as 20 ways to compost organic material at home. The gardens are maintained by Rutgers’ Master Gardeners and the Mercer County Park Commission.

Head to Mercer Stables and, whether you saddle up, mingle with the majestic horses, or simply enjoy the scenery, you’ll be glad you did.

Cardinal notes that Mercer Stables will not be running summer camps this year. However, “Numerous programs for all ages and for all levels of equine experience will be offered.” See the stables’ website for more information.

Mercer County Stables and Educational Gardens, 431 Federal City Road, Pennington. Open daily to the public 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. 609-730-9059 or www.mercercountyparks.org/#!/facilities/mercer-county-stables.

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