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Immersion Education: Life learning on a horse farm

Immersion Education:
Life Learning on a Horse Farm

By Melissa Johnson

Since becoming life learners a number of years ago, my family and I have delved into various pursuits: ballet, guitar, horses, friends, trips, films, a few classes, and an insightful few years at a nearby Sudbury School. With the latter, our older daughter (we have two) remained the longest. It’s back home this year, to try new things outside of the democratic school environment.

It was around the second year at the school that my younger daughter, Elisabeth, decided her place was at the barn – not just after school but before, during, and after – as much as she could squeeze in and still get some sleep. It was where she longed to be, where she felt “herself.” Let me be clear: whether enjoying life at home or choosing to go to a Sudbury school, it’s always been a priority to find what we needed at the time. To us, it’s all unschooling – even when the younger one decided to try public school for a week!

So, when our daughter felt that “barn schooling” was the way to go, we set to work finding a barn that would accommodate her needs.  She wanted to find a place that would allow her to learn by doing, not just take lessons. She found that when she was doing other activities, she would enjoy them but, after a while, that feeling of wanting to be at the barn would pop up.  

So, we sought out (and still are!) barn owners and instructors from whom she could learn directly and who had experience in the show world.

She had already been an avid rider for years; we had made our way around the area, settling for periods at a few barns. What irked her was the way young riders were sometimes treated as less-capable, though I’m not sure it was always a conscious thing on the part of the stable. I think adults are just used to thinking of kids as a general category: lesson attendees. We lucked out by finding a place near us that said they had a “working student program” (a volunteer position) and would be glad to evaluate her skills then set her to work. She has simply thrived there. She has been immersed in the workings of a riding stable – management, feeding, injury care, teaching, working with little kids and adults (including parents!), caring for brand new foals, breeds, tack…the list goes on. While others were in classrooms all day, my daughter was outside, rain or shine, hot or cold. And learning what she felt was valuable and meaningful to her life, both now and in the future. At age twelve.

When our daughter felt that “barn schooling” was the way to go, we set to work finding a barn that would accommodate her needs.

What strikes me sometimes is when I hear how “mature” she is, how folks can’t believe she’s her age. And such a “hard worker.” These are often parents of kids taking lessons at the barn, although sometimes it’s other adult riders and owners of other barns. It seems to me that allowing a child to be where she needs to be eliminates the need for acting out, for trying to fit in, and for resentment. Her experience with a few other kids who come after school (at this and previous barns) is the prevalence of irritating behaviors such as these. Of course, that is not true of all other kids she meets, and she’s not perfect. She’s even had her homeschooling/unschooling challenged – not an unusual experience for those of us living this life, unfortunately!

So far, her experimentation with barn schooling has led her to two established stables and to the barn of a friend who she met while working at one of the two barns. She’s been able to participate in off-campus trail rides and parades, meet people who train horses (including some for Medieval Times), ride in different disciplines such as dressage and three-day events, observe legendary trainers (including one who trained Olympic riders in the 1960s), and breeders. She has become more comfortable with asking people to teach her something new, to try something different.

Fully voicing her concerns is still a challenge at times, however, as she wrestles with how to deal with possible conflict – an issue of being young and also of being introverted, I guess. These conflicts (or potential conflicts, as they’re not always realized) tend to fit in two categories: 1) the question of what she is learning as a homeschooler/unschooler and 2) how to deal with adults with opposing views of how things should get done at the barn.

With the first, people seem to think it’s “cool” that she gets to be at the barn so much, but many express worry that she needs to “get schoolwork done” or learn the “right” things, meaning “schooly” things. So far, she’s decided to avoid the huge discussion of what life learners learn and when and how by just answering that she tackles those subjects in her spare time. She does make sure to inform people that she is learning what she needs to learn by working at the barn, however, for her future career plans.

With the second, an example would be someone telling her to go get a horse out of a field but yet another telling her to put the horse back out. She does speak up for herself in this instance and tells the second person what the former said but it’s still frustrating. Or just dealing with different personalities – some more aggressive than others – and figuring out where to draw the line as a young person trying to be respectful of adults who are in positions of authority (trainers, barn owners, etc.). It’s a growth process, learning when to address an issue and when to let it go, as well.

People seem to think it’s “cool” that she gets to be at the barn so much, but many express worry that she needs to “get schoolwork done” or learn the “right” things, meaning “schooly” things.

So, how can we tell she loves this life? In her words, "Because even when the work is hard or the weather is not cooperating, I’d still rather be there than in a classroom. The feeling that I’ve helped someone learn a new skill, I’ve cleaned something and now it looks nice, something about feeding a horse. I feel a sense of accomplishment when the work is done well. I feel a sense of independence and feel good that I often get to figure things out on my own – there isn’t always someone over my shoulder telling me exactly what to do to solve each problem."

A typical day for her starts between eight and ten in the morning. She begins by scooping feed for around fifteen horses, followed by mucking stalls and refilling water troughs/buckets. She’ll assist the farrier if he’s there, assist the vet, help with lessons, speak with parents and prospective clients about what the barn offers, exercise and help train horses, including miniature horses and donkeys on the farm. She may also help repair fencing, assist with pony rides for the corn maze (in the fall), and help with campers (in the summer). She brings her lunch with her or sometimes, friends or her trainer will buy lunch for her.

The “lunchroom” is usually the tack room or her trainer’s house (on site), which is fine with her! Often, she’s picked up by around four o’clock, although sometimes stays as late as eight or nine in the evening. I take her some dinner, of course.

So, what are her ideas for the future?

She would like to try new barns and methods of riding, see how different people manage their barns. She’d like to run her own facility one day and wants to have acquired a wealth of knowledge about horses, barn management, the show world, and the horse industry in general: the right (horse)shoes, which grain is right, which saddle is appropriate, what class to put this rider in, helpful instruction for students, etc.

An ideal set-up would be to live on the property of the barn where she’d be employed as a trainer or barn manager. The idea of acquiring a degree in equine science or studies has crossed her mind. The University of Maryland has such a program and is relatively close by, which is something to keep in mind in the coming years. Her own horse, too, of course.

And travel – one of those fabulous equestrian holiday packages, like riding on the beach in Ireland, perhaps!

Ideally, though, it would be great if her experience would prove sufficient. There is already a movement in favor of apprenticeship versus the four-year degree. “Uncollege” is one term.

Remember (or remember hearing about) when the ideal education for a child was apprenticeship or just learning from one’s family and village members? This is still the case in traditional societies. Peter Gray, an evolutionary and developmental psychologist from Boston College, has a blog called Freedom to Learn. He has also authored a book titled Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, which explores the origins of modern schooling and, conversely, the true nature of our human growth and instincts. In traditional societies, which more closely resemble our origins as hunter-gatherers, Gray presents the evidence that learning was done through play and by imitating, observing, and taking part in the daily life of the tribe/band.

As an avid reader (explorer!) of the life learning movement, I continue to see more and more evidence that folks are, with or without realizing it, turning to their “roots” – the values of hunter-gatherer societies. Modern schooling has been a short blip on the radar screen of history and, I believe, is going to be on the decline in the future. Rather, the value of banding together to help each other, to nurture each other’s needs and passions, and to support each other (rather than punish) as times change, are what will emerge. Unschooling mom and author Dayna Martin calls it a “revolution”.

Each day at the barn, my daughter doesn’t think about being revolutionary, just enjoying life and learning her passion, as it should be.

Melissa Johnson began homeschooling her daughters when they were small, using Waldorf homeschooling materials. After a few battles of will, she noticed that if she left items out from “lessons,” they would use them as long as they were interested, rather than for her prescribed time period and prescribed way. A couple of friends told her about unschooling and they were on their way. Since then, they have also discovered and tried democratic schooling at a local Sudbury Valley School, which helped with a sense of community and some time for each family member to have a bit of space. Recently, both children have chosen to come back to the unschooling way of life, for various reasons. Melissa enjoys helping others understand curiosity-driven learning and is part of several online groups. She works part-time for a pet-sitting business; is an avid birder, movie, and history buff; and loves old-time radio shows. She has a degree in Elementary Education from Goucher College (acquired in 1994) and had been married to her husband David for twenty-one years when this article was published in 2015.

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