Hartford, Connecticut (CNN) -- Fred Wright may have grown up on Garden Street, but his early childhood was far from rosy.
"It's tough growing up here," said Wright of his low-income neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. "There's a lot of negative influences. ... It's easy to take the wrong path."
Raised by a single mother, Wright struggled with behavioral issues and was forced to transfer schools several times. He ultimately reached a point where he felt like he had nothing to live for.
"I was walking around with a lot on my shoulders," he said. "I couldn't handle it. I didn't care about life anymore."
But all that started to change when Wright met Patricia Kelly.
"I was 7 years old when I met Mrs. Kelly. ... I wasn't used to strictness. I wasn't used to hearing the word 'no,' " said Wright, now 17.
Kelly, a former U.S. Marine and an equestrian, took Wright under her wing and helped him find hope in an unlikely place: on a horse.
"Fred was like a round peg everybody kept trying to squeeze into a square hole," Kelly said. "He was hurting. He needed a place he could express himself. The (riding) arena became that place for him."
For the last 30 years, Kelly has helped children in Hartford stay on the right track through her nonprofit, Ebony Horsewomen. The program offers horseback riding lessons and teaches animal science to more than 300 young people a year.
"We use horses as a hook to create pride, esteem and healing," said Kelly, 66. "They learn that they have ability. They just have to unlock it."
Closing 'the gap'
Connecticut ranks fourth among the wealthiest states in America, according to the Census Bureau. But it also has one of the nation's largest income gaps between rich and poor.
Kelly, who has lived in Hartford most of her life, witnessed the effects of that inequality on the youth.
"It is a divided city; the children in the poorer neighborhoods have less resources," Kelly said.
By exposing those children to horsemanship, Kelly aims to give them an alternative to the streets and an opportunity to turn their lives around.
"When you teach a child to ride a horse, they learn they are the center of their environment," said Kelly, whose program reaches children from age 5 to 19. "Once they make that connection, they can change what happens in school, at home and in the community."
The group's equestrian and agricultural center is nestled inside a 693-acre park. Complete with a horse stable, riding arena and an ice cream parlor, it's a far cry from the dilapidated homes and boarded up school buildings that lie just beyond its gates.
Kelly's equestrian fleet includes 14 horses and a Shetland pony. Also on the farm are chickens, rabbits, fish, birds and turtles, all of which have been bred by the children who have made this urban oasis their home away from home.
A brotherhood on horseback
Among the programs offered by Kelly's group is its unique Junior Mounted Patrol, in which participants serve as park rangers.
"We're the eyes and ears of the park," said Wright, who is the lieutenant of the all-boys group.
Led by older male mentors, the special unit is comprised of boys as young as 8, who meet each Sunday for a day full of activities. They tend to the barn and horses, take riding lessons and participate in wellness workshops. The older boys in the group ride out on patrol through the park.
"The guys have seen quite a number of things," Kelly said. "They have seen drug deals. They've seen fighting. They've seen sexual acts. They've seen dumping. ... If they see these kinds of things, they report it back in and we turn it over to the police."
In the case of young men like Wright, the nonprofit has been a critical part of their development.
"I can't tell you where I would be without this program. It changed my life. It's helped me set goals for myself," said Wright, who has dreams of becoming an equine blacksmith and dentist. He hopes to attend Cornell University after he graduates high school next year.
For Kelly, stories like Wright's serve as a testament to nature's healing powers.
"Children should have light in their eyes. The light signifies hope," Kelly said. "When they come here, we can begin to turn the light back on."
Want to get involved? Check out the Ebony Horsewomen website at www.ebonyhorsewomen.us and see how to help.