What child doesn’t dream of owning their own pony? Data shows the number one wish kids make upon blowing out their birthday candles is to receive a horse. But wait, Mom and Dad! Don’t clear the Back 40 or stockpile oats just yet. Dutchess County holds the distinction of having the largest equine population in the state. With so many riding facilities to choose from, there are endless opportunities to interact with our filly friends. JL Performance Horses is so much more than a typical riding academy. Founded by famed equestrian Leah Struzzieri, who was raised on the Poughquag farm, the mission of this mostly children’s enterprise is as unique as the owner. JL Performance Horses, the area’s oldest riding academy, offers community-based, comprehensive equine educational programs and riding lessons in a fun yet instructional atmosphere. The 20 acre farm has so many child-centered activities serving a wide range of interests that it may be hard for future equestrians to choose just one. PONYSITTERS, the most popular program, is a combination of 4-H, Scouting and Pony Club geared for youngsters aged five to 15. Struzzieri has put together a custom curriculum with specialized programming that bridges the gap between the love of horses and academics. Along with emphasizing self awareness and down home cowboy/ cowgirl grit, the students are inspired to write their own life stories. Ethics, character and a positive attitude are lessons that Struzzieri hopes will take her protégés from the barn to the board room. Of course, this is all done with the backdrop of horsemanship, physical and medical care of the horses, as well as understanding the work involved with attending to their four legged charges. Community involvement is emphasized and the kids attend a variety of events with their pony ambassadors. Not all prospective members are chosen into the select PONYSITTERS program. Instead, it is a carefully chosen blend of participants including those with different abilities. The wide age range allows for younger participants to learn from their older peer mentors with the senior PONYSITTERS taking on leadership roles. “Everyone cheers each other on,” beams Struzzieri. The time commitment to the club is what you would expect from elite scholastic aged travel sports teams. The group, which caps out at 10, meets on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday as well as bonus days and holidays. Lessons can include everything from pleasure driving (horses pull a light cart), English and Western instruction, trail rides and equine welfare, all taught by capable, knowledgeable horse people. Recently, the PONYSITTERS enjoyed making rounds with veterinarian, Dr. Fredrick on the farm and were invited to learn how to properly remove sutures from some of the patients. Participants are expected to keep up with their schoolwork and high speed wireless internet is available at JL so that e-learning can be completed on time. In case you are thinking this club must be costly, think again. The monthly tuition is $450 with scholarship funding available for those who qualify. To put this in perspective, an individual riding lesson can cost $65 or more. One member of the group who was gifted a scholarship went on to win national titles. A summer PONYSITTERS program is also gearing up which will run during school vacation. Already featured on TV, in Hudson Valley Parent magazine and in USA Today, the PONYSITTERS program is perfect for horse crazy kids. If you would like to check out the barn, JL Performance Horses is holding a special open house event on April 25th in honor of National Help A Horse Day. Guests are invited to enjoy a day filled with horsey family fun. Gates open at noon and pre-registration is required. To find out more about this event or the PONYSITTERS program you may visit their webpage at www.nyequine. com/ or call Leah Struzzieri at 845-260-0962.