Horses & Babies & Students

October 30, 2007

Something happened down at the farm the other day that got me thinking about how I train my horses, how we’re raising our child, and how I work with Gould students. You may be thinking, “OK, draft horses, small toddlers, and adolescents… what’s the link here?”

Here’s the situation at the farm. We have 2 horses who are great logging horses. One is older with a lot of experience doing draft work, and one is a youngster with a terrific brain, but less experience. Last Thursday we were moving some logs out of the horse pasture with the team, Dinah and Tinker.

Dinah and Tinker were working very well together and Tinker, the one with less experience, was acting like she’d been twitching logs for 10 years. We walked head-on to the next log. The students hooked the chain to the log, and I asked the horses to “haw-round,” or make a 180 degree turn to the left so they would be in position to hook to the log. Somewhere in that turn, Tinker stepped over the trace with her right rear leg. The traces normally run along the outside of each animal and have the chains that hook to the evener that hooks to the log.

As Tinker moved she felt the odd sensation of the trace running up the inside of her right leg. Being a horse, a flight animal, her first reaction was to remove herself from the situation. She started bouncing around and moving forward. Dinah picked up on Tinker’s energy and joined the bouncing. That’s well over 2500 pounds of horse jumping around and scooting forward, chains and a metal evener jingling, and a little (relatively) person at the other end of the lines saying, “eeeeaaasy… it’s OK, eeeeaaaasy.” They stopped only a few feet from where it all began.

The horses were stopped. What’s the next step? Unhook the trace and relieve Tinker of the strange feeling of a trace on the wrong side of her leg? Fix the problem and move on? Not at this farm. A pat on the bum for both horses, some nice calm reassuring words, then, “walk on” (with the trace still running up the inside of her leg). Tinker bounced a bit again, so we stopped and repeated- reassuring words, a pat on the bum, and “walk on.” It wasn’t long before Tinker calmed down and walked quietly with the trace in the wrong spot.

Although stepping over the trace like that doesn’t happen often, it does happen. Fixing the problem immediately wouldn’t help Tinker learn to handle unfamiliar situations. Asking her to “walk on” reinforced that although it feels strange, it doesn’t hurt, and she can handle it. Eventually she’ll learn, like her mother, that she can take a half step backwards, lift her leg, and step back to the inside of the trace. But for now, I hope what she learned is that a trace under the leg won’t hurt her, and when she’s calm and quiet we’ll be there to help.

How does that relate to raising a young toddler? Reiley had his first haircut the other day- his first “big-boy” haircut. After sitting bravely through the entire event the barber offered to vacuum the cut hair off his and my clothes. She turned on the vacuum and Reiley ran immediately over to Mom. The barber turned off the vacuum and said, “it’s ok, we don’t need to do that.” This mom reached out my arm to Reiley and suggested we turn it back on. Reiley watched the roaring machine for a few seconds, tucked safely close to Mom. Then, still staying close, he reached out to touch it. Before long he was standing on his own playing with the vacuum, laughing as he used his hand to block and release the suction.

Just like Tinker, if we had fixed the situation immediately (turned off the vacuum) he would have left believing that it was scary. Instead he learned that he was safe and despite the loud noise, the vacuum wouldn’t hurt him.

OK, so Gould students? They don’t have chains between their ankles and they’ve learned not to be afraid of a vacuum (although some Friday mornings I do wonder about that one!). But do we, Gould faculty, save them from potentially scary or uncomfortable situations? No. We often, in the words of Kurt Hahn, “compel them into value forming experiences.”

It’s easy to think of the example of Junior 4 Point. A few years ago I was preparing to head into the Maine winter woods with a group of Gould students for an 8 day winter camping experience. A student in our group came up to me and said, “Ms Wilkerson, I can’t go. My fingers will get cold.” I assured him we’d give him all the information and the skills he’d need to keep his fingers, and the rest of his body, warm and comfortable. He came to me later and said, “you’re going to take care of me, right?” He was afraid. Several of our juniors are afraid before heading into the woods. The easy answer would’ve been, “yes, we’ll take care of you.” But that’s not the whole truth. The answer I offered was, “no, I won’t take care of you. But I’ll teach you how to take care of yourself.”

In my mind I was thinking “of course I’ll take care of you,” but he needed to feel responsibility and take ownership of his experience and of his well being. One cannot be passive when it comes to staying warm comfortable in the winter.

The student did an excellent job of taking care of himself and despite his reservations, he had a great experience in the Maine winter woods. That’s not to say he’d head back for another 8 days of snow and cold, but he learned that despite his initial fear and reservations, he was safe winter camping and, indeed, he was cared for in a way that nurtured his independence.

Parallels can be made to roommate conflicts, term papers, oral presentations, soccer games, etc. But looking up at this GLOG I think I’ve used up my allotted words!

The point is, here at Gould, we help our students, but we maintain as many opportunities for learning as we can through the process.

Until next week, Gloggers.



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