As noted in earlier posts, from time to time I step in for teachers in our local district who have to be absent. Sometimes I’m at the high school, but more often I find myself at the middle school. Acquaintances tend to widen their eyes when I tell them I do this: evidently they would cheerfully accept employment on a chain gang rather than face a captive crowd of adolescents.
But I find it to be a tonic, a worthy challenge and a break from the solitary intensity of writing. I may be worn out at the end of the day, but I’m also energized and inspired. And I always, every single time, come away enriched by the experience.
Besides writing and teaching, I spend a good deal of time with horses. Not my own, but those who have come under the care of Sunrise Horse Rescue, a sanctuary for horses who are otherwise out of options. Some are mustangs for whom the Bureau of Land Management’s adoption program didn’t work out; some are Thoroughbreds who were injured on the track; some have been surrendered by owners who found they could no longer afford their care; some were victims of neglect or abuse. Each of them has their own story, often a heartbreaking one, but all of them — our current herd numbers 26 — are now in a safe, caring, permanent home.
Along with a cadre of hard-working and dedicated volunteers, I help keep these horses fed, watered, groomed, exercised, socialized, and otherwise cared for so that they have the highest quality of life possible. We volunteers have vastly differing levels of prior experience with horses, but all of us are given basic training in safe horse handling using the tenets of natural horsemanship. Not that we all become ace horse whisperers, but we learn to communicate with the horses in a way that takes their perspective as prey animals into account. The objective is a relationship based on respect and trust rather than dominance and intimidation. Better for all concerned, whether two- or four-legged.
The lessons I learn from one group inform my experience with the other. By lucky accident, I seem to have stumbled on what amounts to a personal growth course in patience, courage, and compassion.
Here are four things that horses have taught me about middle school kids, and vice versa:
Horses, big and strong as they are, know that life depends on being part of the group. Together, they may bicker and jostle for position, but they feel far better equipped to meet the threatening world outside their tribe. Alone, they’re mostly afraid and miserable. For kids past the age of eleven, friends increasingly take the place of family and adults as their bedrock, their sense of home ground. Finding their place in the herd is an intense and ongoing preoccupation, one that can’t be ignored by teachers or parents.
Two: Every Herd Needs A Leader, And Leaders Are Tested.
The first thing a natural horsemanship trainer will tell you when you are handling an equine is this: in the horse’s mind you and he now constitute a herd. The herd is the basic unit of survival. It has to have a leader, and given that the
horse weighs 1,000 pounds and is afraid of almost everything, that leader needs to be you. Just as with teens, you have to earn and maintain their respect before you can effectively work with them. This is where courage comes in. Some horses are quick to accept you, but sometimes you have to stand your ground and swing your rope while a pushy colt sees if he can get away with invading your space. Once he knows he can’t, he calms down and accepts you as the one who’s going to keep him safe. Then he’ll follow you willingly — until you lose your cool, when the whole process starts all over again. And so it is with middle schoolers.
Three: They Don’t Know Their Own Strength, But You Need To.
Having an adolescent body is much like suddenly being in possession of a horse. It’s a big, strong creature. It has huge appetites. And sometimes it behaves unpredictably, for reasons that are a mystery to it. Like the horse, an adolescent’s body is capable of both grace and disastrous clumsiness. It needs to move. A lot. Also it needs fresh air, the right food and plenty of space. And it desperately needs a chance to play, without too much interference from you, even though watching horses or young teens play can be downright alarming. Try not to let either of them step on your feet.
Horses and kids take a lot of work, a lot of patience, and a lot of resources. But what they give back is incalculable. If you’ve had direct experience with the
horse-human mystique, then you know what I mean: they are exquisitely sensitive creatures, capable of reflecting and amplifying human emotional states and, once you have their trust, generous in offering their deep reserves of peace and healing. And if you’ve worked with or raised teenagers, then you know their flashes of brilliance, their humor, their breathtaking creativity, and their surprising wisdom.
What is it in your life that fills your reservoir of inspiration? Please comment and share!