Taking a fond look back at Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure

Letters. We get letters.

“Recently some of my old classmates were chatting about the Free the Horses program that we went through when we were little,” wrote Keith from Michigan. “I was thinking it would be fun to have a get-together with some of these old friends I grew up with, for a ‘Popcorn and Free the Horses Night’—just to enjoy some nostalgia and share some memories.”Here at Active Parenting Publishers, we can hardly believe the Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure program is old enough to be considered nostalgia. But Keith isn’t the first to remind us about the many children who had the good fortune to meet Kelly, Yes-Yes, and the rest of the gang.Learning disguised as adventureFree the Horses is a story encouraging kids to believe in themselves, their talents, and their dreams. It was turned into a school curriculum by Active Parenting Publishers founder Dr. Michael Popkin in 1991. Over the next two decades, thousands of students participated in a Free the Horses program.

The tale centers on the adventures of Kelly and her friends as they face a variety of problems that children face every day:

  • Kelly is overwhelmed by her responsibilities at school.
  • Bright Knight feels like a failure.
  • Rabbit is picked on by a bully.
  • and several more, including Cleaver Beaver, My Deer, and Able One.

Guided by Jerome the Gnome, the characters meet obstacles along the way to their final challenge of freeing a herd of wild horses.

But that’s not all! At key points in the video, a character named Yes-Yes (a smiling blue “positive attitude”) asks viewers for help. In the classroom, this was the teacher’s cue to launch a discussion or an activity centered on the character trait for that segment.

It all started with a dream

The idea first came to Dr. Popkin during graduate school in the 1970s, part of a dream in which he himself was put on a mission to rescue horses. A few years later he bought a frame in a thrift shop, and when he looked closer, he realized the frame contained an intriguing Salvador Dali print with many elements of the dream—horses, a guide, roadblocks.

Meanwhile, in 1981 Dr. Popkin set about publishing the world’s first video-based parenting education program, Active Parenting. Ten years later he realized it was time to create a companion program helping children learn some of the same principles emphasized in Active Parenting: cooperation, responsibility, and courage. Influenced by his old dream and creatively inspired by the hit film The Princess Bride, he wrote out a story and script for what became Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure. (The program was later revised and renamed A Character Education Adventure.) The story also weaves in elements inspired by the Wizard of Oz and, of course, the legends of King Arthur.

Filming was an adventure in itself

The Free the Horses video was directed by Bob Williams, who had also directed the original Active Parenting of Teens program. After Dr. Popkin shared his vision, Bob called and said “I have the perfect location for you: Vancouver Island, British Coumbia. It has castles and beautiful forests and everything we need for the story.” Dr. Popkin and his team traveled from Atlanta to Canada for the two-week film shoot in November of 1991. (“The rainy season,” Dr. Popkin noted ruefully during a recent interview. “We probably should have picked a different month!”)

The wonderful cast of talented child actors was recruited from nearby towns. Guide Jerome the Gnome was played by legendary actor Billy Barty, a former child actor himself whose career began in 1927. In addition to show business, Barty was a lifelong activist on behalf of people with dwarfism who founded the influential Little People of America in 1957. (What a perfect match for a story about courage and conviction!)

It was a hit…with a twist

The Free the Horses program was a hit from the moment it was published, and found its way into many schools across North America. Teachers are a creative group, and they found many interesting ways of using the curriculum. A California teacher, funded by a Teaching Tolerance grant, arranged to have real horses visit the school at the end of the program, much to the students’ delight. Another, Wisconsin leader Todd Hadler, turned it into a summer camp program complete with raucous games. (Click here to download Hadler’s guide.)

But there was also a reaction to the program that came as a surprise: some religious parents objected to the elements of wizards and magic in the story. “Now, thanks to Harry Potter, there are wizards everywhere,” recalls Dr. Popkin. But at the time it was unexpected.

Bring the lessons of Free the Horses home

And now, for the very first time, we are pleased to make the entire Free the Horses video available for home viewing. And like the horses, it is now FREE.  Just click on this link to go to our YouTube channel. Watch it with your kids. They may think the filming looks funny—times have changed! But you may be surprised how quickly they become engrossed in the story. Use your Active Parenting skills to encourage them to develop their own Golden Spiral of Success!

Dr. Michael Popkin

Founder and President
Active Parenting Publishers