Portland Meet Portland (PMP) believes that building confidence and friendship across cultures and between newcomer refugee youth and mainstream American youth is a vital part of developing healthy, trusting communities. A unique program was made possible for such an opportunity through a Riding Scholarship Fund established at the Arbor School of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with PMP and Big Dog Stables. In November 2016, three refugee girls began taking weekly lessons at Big Dog. One of them, See Yo Htoo, is also an intern at PMP and wrote this story to develop her writing and public relations reporting skills.
The two sisters, Nah Blue Say Wah and Shee Gay Way were both born in a Thai refugee camp. Their parents arrived at the camp escaping civil war in Burma (Myanmar). The family lived in the camp for seven years and resettled in Portland 2010. Nah and Shee arrived at a young age with their nine family members: both parents, a grandmother, three other sisters and one little brother. Nah is the third child and Shee is the fourth child. They’re two years apart from each other and yet have opposite personalities. Naw, who is into fashion, is shy around unfamiliar people but outgoing with the people she is comfortable with. Shee, on the other hand, is always outgoing, an avid singer, and very mature for her young age. Despite their personality differences, the sisters share many hobbies including playing basketball and piano, cooking, and now, riding horses.
Growing up as refugees, Nah, age 13, and Shee, age 11, had never seen horses before - they had only heard of them and seen pictures in a book. For them, the opportunity to ride horses has been a dream come true. Shee said “I wanted to try horse riding because the horse sounded fun to me but then I felt excited to actually see real horses and get to pet them because I only see horses in books.” Nah added “I wanted to try it because I never tried it before. When I was little I was always interested in horse. I wanted to know how it feel to ride a horse. I want to have a little experience.” Neither girl ever expected to join horseback riding with Big Dog Stables , but their dreams and wishes came true when Portland Meet Portland and the Arbor School of Arts and Sciences offered them a scholarship to take riding lessons.
PMP and the Big Dog community found two Interns willing to drive the young riders from North Portland to Oregon City. Jessica Henderson and Ellena Rosenthal (two college students) had many rich and engaging conversations with the refugee girls along the way -- and offered a sense of support and trust for the girls. On the first day, when they arrived at the barn Nah said “The first time I got there I saw two dogs and I was really scared because when I see other dogs I don’t feel comfortable.” Shee also had the same reaction but said she overcome her fear later on. One huge lesson they have learned this year is how to overcome their fear of dogs. Judy Herson, their teacher and owner of the barn said, “Oh, I think of the very first day I met them [Nah and Shee] the dogs came up...and they quickly in a little group were trying to get right back into the car. Now I see them as two very independent, very comfortable girls.” Overcoming fear and developing confidence are essential life skills to learn, especially for young girls living in the city. Judy adds: “Well, I would say that stretches in confidence of the girls also carries over everywhere. If you can master a big horse, you can get them to do what you want, you can better deal with kids at school that bug you, who may do things that may not be appropriate. I think you have more of a voice and inner strength.”
At first, Nah and Shee didn't expect anything in horseback riding but just for it to be fun and totally different from their daily life. When they first sat on a horse, they were initially scared. Nah said, “At first when I started riding a horse I thought I was going to fall, Iike its not used to me.” On the other hand, Shee said “In the beginning I was scared of dogs, also I used to get scared getting on horses too until I got to ride [sic] on Strawberry and Scooterbug, now I ride only mostly on Scooterbug.” Not only do the girls ride horses at Big Dog they also have to do other things such as chores. Nah said, “We have to scoop horse poop, groom the horses we rode, and we have to make sure there's no more dirt on horses feet.” Judy agrees that the chores at the barn are an important part of learning responsibility. “The progress lies not from riding, but the confidence and empathy that comes from being around the horses, these big dogs, and all these girls. The girls know the jobs they do at the barn are really important, it keeps the horses alive. Keeps them healthy.”
In addition to learning about responsibility in horsemanship, the two sisters are improving their skills in horseback riding, “Now I’m trotting, stirring [sic] and jumping, [and in the] last two weeks I just started learning how to canter,” said Nah. Shee is progressing similarly. “I'm doing cantering, trotting, jumping and learning how to use the tools for horses and clean up the horse after riding it,” said Shee.
The two refugee girls have learned a lot through riding, and also that “everyone has something to teach and share” says Judy. And, given Portland Meet Portland’s mission to foster friendships between refugees and mainstream communities, the girls have learned much from their teacher Judy and Ally and from two younger barn interns; Zoey and Eloise. Shee said, “The teachers at the barn are great because they're good at structuring us, when horses is naughty. And, Judy knows how to stop the naughtiness, also the girls there are nice.” It is a rare opportunity for refugee newcomers to intersect with mainstream American girls in a shared hobby and around a growth challenge like riding horses. Both Nah and Shee said they would give the barn and their experience a 10 out of 10. They agree that “It’s fun… and when you have stress you should go and ride horse because it’s between you and the horse and no one else and your stress will disappear, that how I released my stress.” While Shee said “ I think I would tell the people who are scared to actually see the horse and start riding it and they will feel confident.