MAPLE CITY -- Chelsey Phelps has been riding horses since she was 5, the age thousands of children in Mongolia begin racing horses professionally.
Except in Mongolia, many child jockeys ride without protective gear such as helmets, resulting in hundreds of deaths every year, Phelps said.
It's a crisis the Traverse City College Preparatory Academy student is determined to help solve as part of the 4-H horse club, Hidden Beech Equestrians. The Leelanau County club has been working since May to collect used riding helmets to send overseas in partnership with American Peace Corps volunteer Alexandra Yang.
The project began when club leader Eleanor Miller read a letter to the editor by Yang in a leading horse magazine. Yang is a Peace Corps volunteer serving at the Baruun-Urt Children Development Center in Mongolia, part of a group working to equip child jockeys with durable saddles. Because of the agency's limited funds, Yang is seeking help in providing the young racers with riding helmets.
After Miller tossed the idea out to her club during a planning meeting, Phelps, 17, adopted it as her 4-H community service project. Then she got the rest of the club on board.
"I know a lot of kids here that love horses and love riding, and I can't imagine having to ride without the same protection and rights to protection, and being forced, whether they want to or not, to race," said Phelps, who competes with her thoroughbred show hunter, Diesel, in 4-H and regional Stepping Stone Horse Shows.
So far the club has collected about a dozen helmets through e-mails and phones calls to local barns, helmet companies and other equine organizations. But many more are needed, Phelps said.
"So far it's been very hard, but it's something we really want to push," she said. "People are having trouble letting go of some of their personal things. And because of the economy, more people are trying to reuse or pass it on."