Four Lessons From the Herd
When I’m not writing or working at my day job — in which I am a campus supervisor at a middle school, a position that falls somewhere between assistant principal and crossing guard — I spend a fair amount of time with horses.
I’m a volunteer and board member with Sunrise Horse Rescue, an equine rescue and sanctuary in Calistoga, California. The horses I work with there may have a history of abuse or neglect, or perhaps their owners simply couldn’t afford their care and have run out of options. Sunrise offers these animals a safe, permanent landing spot complete with plenty of human care and attention. For the humans in the equation, it offers the unique power of the horse-human connection. It’s a win for all involved.
I’m continually struck by how much horses and young adolescents have in common. If you work with or parent or otherwise have middle schoolers in your life, I offer you four lessons from my equine friends:
One: It’s All About The Herd.
Horses, as big and strong as they are, know that survival 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.
Just as with teens, you have to earn and maintain a horse’s respect before you can effectively work with them.
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 a horse’s respect before you can effectively work with them. This is where courage comes in. Some horses are quick to accept you, but there are times when you must stand your ground while a pushy colt sees if he can get away with invading your space. Once you’ve passed that test, the horse nearly always calms down and accepts you as the one who’s going to keep things safe and orderly. Then he’ll follow you willingly — until something changes or 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 even it may not understand.
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.
Four: They’re Worth It
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.
Horses and young teens demand the best I have to give. Working with them keeps me grounded in what a mysterious and challenging world we inhabit together. I’m grateful for the time I spend with both.