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Riding high Longtime 4-H leader wins national recognition

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 7:53 p.m.

Patty Kelly, of Unity Township, has nourished a lifetime of interest in horses, a love of children and teaching, and a firm belief that horses and children have a lot to give to each other.

"Horses can empower kids," she said. "Kids can have successes and failures with horsemanship skills and still know that they can reach goals."

Those philosophies inspired Kelly, a teacher in the Jeannette School District, to develop several equestrian programs for the Westmoreland 4-H Club. Some are still being used, and one was adopted by clubs all over Pennsylvania.

All of her enthusiasm led to national recognition earlier this year when she received the 2001 Youth Horse Leader of the Year Award. It was sponsored by the American Youth Horse Council and given at its conference in Charlotte, N.C. Nominees were "exemplary leaders" from 4-H Clubs, Pony Clubs and other organizations in the youth horse field.

Kelly didn't know she was going to be the recipient when she attended the conference. But it was no secret to her husband, Scott, the Penn State people who nominated her, and the ones who selected her for the honor.

It was no surprise to anyone who knows of her enthusiasm for teaching equestrian skills to young people.

Kelly has been involved with 4-H clubs for 43 years, first as a member and the last 30 years as a leader. Her interest was sparked by her father, Glen Harris, of Greensburg RD 1, who at age 88 is one of the county's oldest 4-H leaders.

She has eight horses and an eight-acre farmette where her now-grown daughters shared her love of horses. Kristy and Stacey, who are "excellent riders," won prizes in 4-H horse events.

"My interest has always been with horses," Kelly said. "As a teenager, I spent more time in the barn than I spent at the mall. I could talk to my horse and tell him anything, and he wasn't going to tell anybody. He was one of my best friends until I met my husband."

Kelly is involved in many 4-H equestrian activities. Recent weeks included horse shows, a county roundup, and a clinic for young equestrians.

In the 1980s, she started a drill team for horseback riders and founded the area's first therapeutic riding program for youngsters with special needs. She also implemented a "wooden nickel" program that rewards riders for community service, such as pulling weeds at the county fairgrounds. The tokens are later redeemed for auction merchandise.

Kelly judged horse skills clinics for nearly 25 years and developed a horsemanship skills program that takes participants through logical steps of training.

"It gives people a progression so that they know what they have to work on from ground level up," she said. "They see in the movies that people just jump on a horse, kick it, and say 'let's go,' but they have to walk before trotting and trot before cantering."

Kelly trains leaders to use her program. So far, more than 225 have been certified in 10 state districts in 41 counties.

Joann Logan, Westmoreland County's Penn State extension agent in charge of 4-H and Youth Development, calls it "a recipe for riding" but considers it more than an experience on horseback.

"Patty developed an incentive program for our kids so they can grow personally as well as in their horsemanship skills," said Logan, who nominated Kelly for the national award. "She wants them to grow as individuals in communication skills, recordkeeping, learning to set goals and working toward them, and being responsible by taking care of an animal. You add up all those qualities, and you are not just being a good athlete, but a person who becomes a better parent and a better citizen of the community."

Kelly continued her involvement with her 4-H Club despite three bouts with cancer. She now is trying to spend more time riding, an activity that she says brings her "peace."

"Horses are good companions and, when you ride, you can forget about a lot of things," she said.

The volunteering brings her satisfaction.

"Everybody should give back something, and good things come out of this program," Kelly said. "Kids treat horses better when they are educated, and horses treat the kids better. I want to make the world a better place for both of them, and I feel really blessed to be able to do so."

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