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By focusing on teaching underserved kids to ride, Roberta Wilmore is introducing more color into Boston equestrian circles.

Roberta Wilmore
Lifelong equestrian Roberta Wilmore, here with her pregnant mare Pearl, runs an Ashfield nonprofit that gets kids into the saddle. (Globe Photo / Fred Collins)

At an auction at the Washington International Horse Show in 2004, Roberta Wilmore won a coveted chance to breed a mare to a well-known stallion. The only problem was she didn't own a horse. "I had sperm but no mare," says Wilmore, an energetic woman who looks younger than her 52 years. But it was hardly a major obstacle for someone who has worked in her own small way to do for the local equestrian scene what Arthur Ashe did for tennis: open the doors to kids of color.

The daughter of a black Presbyterian minister and theologian, Wilmore grew up in a white Quaker community in rural Pennsylvania. Wilmore has had a lifelong love affair with horses. By age 10, she was working in local stables in exchange for riding lessons. Later, when her parents enrolled her in an all-black Presbyterian high school in Georgia, she persuaded a former employer to send a few horses to the school, where she started a riding club, giving lessons to her peers, none of whom had ridden a horse. "I did whatever I had to do to make being with horses happen," Wilmore says.

Working with and caring for horses gave her the confidence to "walk in many worlds," she says, and became the cornerstone of her social development. Wilmore became an accomplished rider and, later, a popular riding instructor. She made Massachusetts her permanent home in 1982 and has continued to teach on nights and weekends after working days as property manager for MB Management Co. in Braintree. In 1997, she bought a 60-acre horse farm in Ashfield and named it Lee Ella Farm after her mother.

But in more than 30 years of working with horses, she rarely saw another black face in the riding centers where she spent so much time. So in 2001, Wilmore founded the nonprofit Children's Equitation Center with the mission to encourage children of color and other underserved youngsters to participate in the horse world. "I had a wonderful experience with horses as a child with no money," Wilmore says, "and I wanted other children to have that same experience." With headquarters at her farm, the center now has six horses and runs programs after school and on weekends, holidays, and during summer vacation.

"She's introducing a whole group of people to something that they didn't even know was there," says Edna Doggett, president of the center's board of directors.

It's not glamorous work. Wilmore spends hours behind the wheel of rented vans shuttling children to and from stables around the state and as far away as Virginia. "A big part of what my parents did was get me there," Wilmore says. "Transportation is very important to these kids."

Cecilia George got to know Wilmore after George's 14-year-old daughter, Sagga Ramsey, joined the Children's Equitation Center nearly three years ago. "Roberta is a woman of color who is interested in horses, has her own farm, and is struggling financially to do what she wants to do," says George, who lives in Roxbury. "She's showing the kids that not all black women are struggling with single motherhood, welfare, and violence. She went outside, took a risk, and was successful."

Wilmore teaches more than horsemanship. "Being with horses is hard work," she says. "We want to pick individuals who are really passionate and see them right through college, if that's what they choose to do." She says she's not grooming children for equestrian careers as much preparing them to achieve their dreams through work. Families with kids in the Children's Equitation Center pay on a sliding scale. "Some pay $25," Wilmore says. "Others pay much more."

With Wilmore's help, Ramsey, an eighth-grader at the Mission Hill School in Roxbury, earns lessons the way Wilmore once did: by volunteering in stables, cleaning stalls, and answering phones. "When we're not riding," Ramsey says, "we are learning about riding tools, how to muck stalls, what to feed horses, and how to take care of them." This summer, she hopes to land a paying job with horses.

She wouldn't be the first Wilmore protege to do well. Kendra Cecieta, 24, was Wilmore's student for five years while growing up in Beverly in the 1990s. After her father died when she was 12, Cecieta coped by throwing herself into horseback riding. Two years later, when Cecieta was ready to buy her own horse, Wilmore spent five months traveling to stables as far away as Vermont to help her find the right one.

"Roberta will go to the ends of the earth to get what she wants," says Cecieta, now an executive at Phelps Media Group, an equestrian public relations firm in Wellington, Florida. Her horse, Monty, was the first donated to the Children's Equitation Center.

The Children's Equitation Center has survived on an average budget of less than $25,000 a year, Wilmore says, all from individual contributions and in-kind donations. (The Center received its first grant earlier this month.) The staff, including Wilmore and her son,Amber, 27, are volunteers. She says overtures to the region's horse scene have been warmly received.

"The horse set gets a bad rap," she says. "The image that they're god-awful nasty rich people has not been my experience. They're willing to share what they have."

Wilmore is sharing, too: her experience and a message about working hard and being resourceful to get what you want. "I think it helps that I have brown skin and that I saved 10 years for my farm and that I didn't own my own horse until I was 52," she says.

Last year, a friend gave Wilmore a mare to complete the breeding opportunity she won in 2004, and Pearl's foal is due around Mother's Day. If it's a filly, Wilmore plans to name her after civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. If it's a colt, she'll call him Nelson Mandela.

Mary Mulkerin Donius is a freelance writer in Hingham. Send e-mail to muldon@comcast.net.

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