For more than 75 years, the New Canaan Mounted Troop program has endeavored to teach children life lessons through horsemanship.

The NCMT is a place where kids learn leadership, responsibility and teamwork all within the barn setting. Today, those principals are helping to shape a new generation of teens who find themselves returning year after year not only because of their love of horses but also to help make a difference in their communities.

Once only a partial component of the "troop" curriculum, equine care has emerged as a popular stand-alone program for teens looking to do community service. The program, allows teens to share their passion for horses and at the same time gain community service hours.

The equine care program requires the participant to attend a weekly Barn Day at which kids are responsible for feeding, grooming and general care of the 28 donated horses and ponies. A 30-minute veterinary care lecture is also included. The older students manage and oversee the younger children, teaching them along the way about horsemanship.

"It is a mentorship program with the horses being the facilitators," said Jenny Schwartz, development director. "The kids run the barn, and in the process, they learn the importance of teamwork and responsibility through the pure and simple fact that these horses and ponies really rely on them to show up every day, rain or shine."

Paige Drippe is a sophomore at Darien High School and rides at Sea Horse Stables in Newtown, where she shows competitively on the local and regional circuit in the equitation and hunter divisions. She also devotes her time in the program of the NCMT. Drippe first joined the troop at age 8 in 2004, and has climbed the ranks to first lieutenant. She runs the Monday Barn Day and oversees up to 20 children who are required to do barn chores and attend weekly veterinary care lectures.

"I love working with the younger kids and teaching them in a hands-on way," she said. "It is very rewarding. It is also great that I still get to see some of the horses and ponies that I learned to ride on, like Daisy, Cortell, and Spunky."

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Courtney Plutte is a junior at DHS and rides with trainer Walter "Tim" Kees of Norfield Farms in Newtown. She also began her riding career at the NCMT in 2004, but left to pursue a competitive show career on a local, regional and national level. Plutte returned to the troop in 2012 to participate in the equine care program, where she really enjoys the camaraderie and sense of family she gets at troop.

"Being back at NCMT, I feel I have a chance to really make a difference with the younger troopers," she said. "I've also really enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, and I'm excited to bring new ideas to the group."

THE NCMT also provides the opportunity for high school-aged kids to work with peers on the Officers' Council, which is responsible for creating and hosting fundraising events. Among the events are the annual Halloween Carnival and Trooper Nights that help to raise funds not only for NCMT but also for local charitable organizations that have a focus on children and/or animals. Last year, the Officers' Council raised enough money to fund two summer camp riding scholarships and were able to distribute funds to local charities, such as Strays and Others, Horizons Student Enrichment Program and Outreach to Pets In Need of Stamford.

"Participation on the Officers' Council is voluntary, therefore any time that a trooper donates his or her time by helping with or running an event, it counts toward community service hours," said Schwartz.

Cadet Maj. Nicole Williams, a senior at DHS, is the highest-ranking officer at the NCMT and is responsible for managing and executing all activities of the Officers' Council.

"Community service is one of the main aspects of the Officer's Council, and we make donations from these events each year to charities such as the Young Philanthropists Fund and the New Canaan Food Bank," said Williams. This year's Officers' Council has raised over $1,800 to date under her leadership.

"Throughout my years at troop, I have not only learned how to ride, but also how to be a leader and to take responsibility. These skills will prove beneficial in any work environment in the future," she added.

Emma Sapio, a Darien sophomore who attends Convent of the Sacred Heart, has ridden at the NCMT since 2004. Now a captain, Sapio leveraged her experience on Officers' Council to apply to the Barat Foundation, a student-run entity that benefits children and is an important facet of Sacred Heart's young women in philanthropy and financial literacy effort.

Sapio was one of two students accepted into the program this year. In her application essay, she wrote about her experiences at Troop. "Not many teenagers have the opportunity to make a difference and see the results of their efforts firsthand. At Troop, that is what we do every day. Troop sparked an interest for me in the importance of community and philanthropic work in general. I feel the Officers' Council really prepared and encouraged me to work within nonprofits."

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