A Close-Up Look At People Who Matter : Equestrian Keeps Tight Reins on Youth

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"Fours! Left and right oblique. Ho!" ordered the cadet commander.

Carrying on a nearly lost tradition of horse-mounted cavalry, Troop H members guided their horses into formation at a Sunland ranch bathed in electric light. But these troopers, with crossed-sword insignias on their uniform lapels, can be as young as 9--a few score pounds of humanity in command of an animal a dozen times their size.

"There is a very steep tradition," said Mike Stigers, regimental commander who oversees 150 troopers in the California Rangers, a little-known military style youth organization operating in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. "The commands and the formations trace back to battlefield tactics."

The organization was created during World War II as a branch of the California state militia. Horse-mounted high school boys were assigned to patrol the Santa Monica Mountains and to spot submarines at sea.

"I don't think anybody ever saw any submarines," said Alex Wehrfritz, president of the group's board of directors.

After the war, the rangers became an independent nonprofit group run by volunteers, teaching youth self-respect and discipline through horsemanship. Members, ages 9 to 16, climb ranks, salute senior officers and learn to take care of their horses after a hard day.

"You're tired and you don't want to, but the horse comes first, always," said Lt. Alyson Morris, the cadet commander of Troop H, after wrapping up the weekly drill session. Alyson, 16, is a high school junior who may someday join the National Guard.

The California Rangers are an affordable way for kids to step into the equestrian world. Members pay $10 a month in dues plus horse rentals of $15 a week.

Each trooper trains on a different horse every week to learn to manage various animal personalities.

"We've got 30 personalities out there," said Stigers as he watched the 15 members of Troop H drill.

"Some of the horses are real slugs," Alyson said. "Some are real hyper."

But as rider and horse work as a team and as troopers learn to work with partners, columns and groups of four, all the personalities come together to create one, which is the troop, said Capt. Edith Conner of Van Nuys, Troop H commander.

"There is something about riding a horse which is awesome," said Conner, who has seen her daughter, Rebecca, 16, grow up by "10,000 years" since she joined the Rangers three years ago. "(The youths) come in here and they'll mouth off at you and we'll tone them down, or they will come in very shy and they'll leave with three or four friends."

Conner said Rebecca came home crying after her first night, but then announced, "I think this will be good for me, Mom."

"She got yelled at and kept coming back," Conner said. Troopers learn to follow some basic behavior rules. "You don't talk back. You don't say, 'I'm trying.' You say 'Yes ma'am' and be quiet."

Rebecca now is in the Rangers Eagle Troop, an elite unit commanded by Stigers that performs drills using only music and whistle commands. Troopers try out each year for the Eagle Troop and have to keep up good grades to stay in.

Dustin Weimann, 12, of Sunland, joined his sister three months ago to learn the Ranger way. "Heels down and toes in," explained the boy, adding that Rangers always ride with their shoulders square with one hand on the thigh.

"Kids love discipline," said Stigers, 36, an electronics salesman who joined the Rangers when he was 10. "Kids love consistency."

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