By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
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."
Miller said the club, based at her Cedar farm, has always been committed to community service projects. But this one has a special appeal to the group's 18 members, ages 9 to 18.
"In the past, we've always given money to a horse rescue organization and then we've gone down and helped with the horses," said Miller, who also coaches Leelanau Horse Bowl teams and has been an instructor for the 4-H Therapeutic Riding program in the five-country area. "This is a way to expand their horizons and interest in what use and value people in other countries place on their horses."
Since long before the time of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, horse riding has been a popular tradition in Mongolia.
Each July, Mongolians gather to celebrate the "Naadam" Festival, in which participants compete in three sports: archery, wrestling and horse racing. More than 30,000 child jockeys between 4 and 10 race their ponies over a 12- to 28-kilometer course in what has been called "the world's longest horse race." An estimated 5 percent of the young riders fall off during the event.
Miller said the club plans to mail the helmets it collects near the end of October.
"They have no protection, so any protection they can get is better than none," Phelps said.
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