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Ranch helps kids boost self-esteem, build character

Shortly after riding in her first day of training at Stable Days Youth Horse Ranch Quinn Varian, 6, along with her trainer Cassy Favela, 20, give their horse Angel a comforting pat on the nose. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)

Kylie Letexier, 10, played a unique form of ring toss Tuesday afternoon at Stable Days Youth Ranch: from horseback.

Kylie led Samson around a pen, positioning him so that she could throw her rings around orange pylons.

Letexier is one of over 50 kids who attend summer sessions at Stable Days Youth Ranch in East Grand Forks.

Stable Days, a free program started by Ben and Caryl Lester in 2011, helps teach kids leadership skills through working with mentors that help them learn to ride and groom horses and do various activities around the ranch.

“I like to do it because I like riding horses because they’re fast and pretty,” said Letexier, who is now in her fourth year with the program.

Cassy Favela, 20, is the barn manager for Stable Days, and loves her job so much that she had trouble articulating it.

“It’s like a dream job,” she said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Favela was leading Quinn Varian, 6, around on Angel, a horse rescued by the Lesters.

At the end of the riding session, Favela picked up Varian off the horse and lowered her to the ground. Varian petted Angel’s face before dashing off to the barn, asking how to take off her shiny pink helmet. She wanted to give Angel some apples.

“I like trotting with her, and I like to groom the horses,” said Varian, who started coming to the program with Letexier this year.

What makes Stable Days different from your average horse ranch is the emphasis put on building character and life skills. The Lesters try to incorporate skills ranging from emotional control to leadership development into the program.

In addition to benefitting the kids, Stable Days also benefits horses. The Lesters have rescued eight horses since the beginning of the program and have nursed many of them back to full health.

“This is such a wonderful program,” said Julie Ludwig, a case manager with Northeast Human Services who has been bringing kids to the program for three years. “I can’t say enough good about the work that they do. It’s a healthy, wonderful place to learn respect for the horses and each other.”

Stable horses, stable kids

Caryl Lester looked up at the wall of saddles — 30 in all — inside the barn at Stable Days while walking between stations.

“We started with nothing,” she said. “We bought one saddle, and all of a sudden we started getting donations.”

After opening in a community barn in 2011, Stable Days moved to the grounds of River Bend, which used to be a golf course and restaurant, in 2012. Stable Days is a 501c3 non-profit, and Lester said they have received an amazing amount of donations since opening in 2011, including a large grant from United Way this year.

The Lesters began Stable Days after their niece Andi had a life-changing interaction with horses.

The Lesters have had custody of Andi, who has various emotional and learning disabilities, for most of her life. When Andi was 11, the Lesters received custody of Andi for the third time, and were trying to get her placed in a 24-hour care facility.

But before they could find anything, a surprising solution presented itself: horses.

“While we were waiting, my parents paid for her to take riding lessons, and it changed her life,” Lester said.

Lester said the horse Andi was riding would mirror Andi’s emotions, and Andi’s feelings of rage and aggression would be present in the horse’s demeanor.

“She realized she had to control her emotions to calm down the horse,” Lester said.

After Andi’s riding lessons, the Lesters decided to lease Freida, a horse with asthma, for Andi to ride and care for, which did wonders for Andi’s condition.

Lester said Andi went from spending hours being physically restrained to landing a spot on the A-B honor roll. Andi, now 15, is currently a junior volunteer at Stable Days and a great rider, according to Lester.

“It’s amazing how far she’s come,” she said.

The Lesters decided they wanted to take Andi’s experience and share it with other kids by opening Stable Days. The ranch is now open to kids with or without a diagnosis.

Ludwig said the program is beneficial to all kids because it helps them with their self-esteem and confidence, which they can apply to their lives outside of the stable.

“Kids will have problems or self-esteem issues, (then) they work with horses and mentors, and suddenly they’re building confidence and feeling good about themselves,” Ludwig said.

Summer at Stable Days

Stable Days is open to all kids, whether or not they have any sort of diagnosis. Lester said she loves seeing kids be able to enjoy the outdoors.

Stable Days runs sessions three days per week, and most sessions run 1.5 hours. Every session, kids go to riding, grooming, work and gardening stations. On Tuesday, some of the kids pulled weeds in the garden before pulling up carrots, while others put together new Adirondack chairs.

Lester said they let the kids do a lot of the hands-on work, which helps them feel that they’ve created something on the ranch.

Kids also have the opportunity to do other outdoor activities, such as canoeing and fishing in the Red River, which runs around the property.

The Lesters and the kids involved in Stable Days are also making more improvements to the ranch.

Currently in the works at Stable Days is a new riding arena large enough to accommodate more competitive riding and barrel jumping, as well as a new garden that is four times larger than the ranch’s previous one. When the vegetables in the garden are ready, Lester said the kids get to take home the produce.

As she looked over the garden, Letexier and Varian ran back from the barn with their lunches in hand. Kylie laughed and said she wanted to eat lunch from atop the mounded end of the garden.

Lester was puzzled as to why someone would want to eat lunch on top of a dirt hill, but she shrugged and smiled. Overall, Stable Days is all about having fun.

“Our top goal is to have a really good time with the kids,” Lester said.

Call Richie at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1134; or send email to

Garrett Richie
Garrett Richie is a general assignment reporter and digital writer for The Grand Forks Herald. Richie is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is formerly of The Ludington Daily News in Ludington, Mich. Have a good story idea? Contact Richie by either phone or email, both of which are listed below. If you would like to comment on a story, send a letter to the editor with Richie's name and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words, and all letters are subject to editing. Email to or mail to The Grand Forks Herald.
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