Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Wyoming Catholic College is four-year college in Lander, Wyoming, that has a student body of 177. The students read the “great books” of Western literature and have an active Catholic spiritual life. Unique among their required classes is a one-semester course on horsemanship. They learn the basics of caring for and riding a horse and take trail rides and enjoy the beautiful country that surrounds the college. I spoke to two students who recently took the course.
Grace Kirwan is a Midwesterner who is beginning her second year at Wyoming Catholic. She chose the college, she said, because “I had questions I wanted to answer and I wanted to grow in sanctity.” After graduation, she hopes to teach, enter religious life, “or both.” Before coming to Wyoming Catholic, Grace had experience with horses from her family, who owned a few during her childhood.
Grace related the following experiences about the horsemanship program:
“Every Wednesday afternoon I would quickly finish my lunch and my classmates and I would drive to the ranch or the indoor arena for a three-hour horsemanship class. It was always a little tough to give over that much of my time on an activity away from homework, but the reward was great and I always left class feeling invigorated and confident. My formal instructors were two very qualified women with loads of experience under their belts and the teaching style was weighted heavily on experiential learning rather than lecturing or constant monitoring to make sure the students did everything right. Another important teacher of mine was Storm, the horse that I was paired with at the beginning of the semester.
Storm taught me important leadership techniques. I learned to make decisions with confidence and surety. If I was at all hesitant, if my mind was not made up, Storm would get confused and flustered. He wanted to take directions from me, but that meant I had to give him clear, consistent directions.
The horsemanship program also taught me patience. I was tempted to get angry with Storm several times throughout the course, and it always stemmed from a lack of knowledge on my part. For example, it wasn’t until the middle of the semester that I was able to mount Storm without assistance from someone holding his lead rope. Storm wanted to walk away while I was trying to get in the saddle, and it wasn’t until I asked for advice on what to do that I figured out how to treat his habit. The very next try, I successfully mounted on my own and never looked back. I realized then that practical knowledge is very helpful to combat anger.
During one of our last classes of the semester, we were asked to reflect on our experience in the horsemanship program and ask ourselves why it is a part of our curriculum at WCC. I wondered at the ways horses can teach humans something unique that we can’t get from any other source — not the backcountry, not the classroom — but something totally new. Sure, it was experiential leadership, but we can get that in the outdoors. Yes, it was a lesson in communication, but I can get that in the classroom. What is it that horses offer that’s unique? Horsemanship teaches us students our role as caretakers of creation. A horse will not argue with its rider about the mileage for the day, or the number of water breaks planned, or the route you decide is best. The rider is forced to use his judgment and exercise prudence. Mankind can divert rivers, tunnel through mountains and cut down forests; a horse will run itself to death if man asks it to. This is the lesson the horse teaches that none other can: man has been given dominion over creation and he must practice restraint, or creation will let itself be exhausted.
On the trail we saw antelope and white-tailed deer. My instructor also pointed out a flower called phlox, which is usually the first bloomer and is in the edelweiss family. She noticed an abundance of the flower which means the land had been over-grazed.
I enjoyed horsemanship much more than I anticipated; I think my horse made all the difference. After a few weeks of class, I knew that Storm knew me, and I was slowly forming a bond of trust with him. We made a good pair.”
Tom Tyznik is from Illinois, and is also beginning his second year at Wyoming Catholic. He chose the school, he said, “to become like the friends I knew who went there.” He plans to go into business after graduation. He had had little experience with horses before taking the horsemanship program.
Tom related the following experiences about the program:
“The horsemanship program was fun. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the class. Lorine [the instructor] does a great job teaching and instructing in a nice, easygoing way. Some of the fun things we did were quadrilles and obstacle courses in the arena. I really like those because it was challenging and fun to try new things. Later on, we got to ride on the ranch and explore some foothills. Everyone really enjoyed this since we could ride faster and see the pretty landscapes. We mostly just saw cattle on the trail. There were some deer and elk sometimes, but they liked being up higher than we were. I think the greatest part of the class was being able to ride horses with my friends and share the same experiences with them.
Some of the things I learned were how to communicate with an animal better. They really seem to respond to how you are feeling when you ride. If you seem scared, they were less obedient then when you were confident. They also would be more resentful when you tried to bridle and saddle them. I think learning this really helped me become a better rider overall and also a better observer.
The course does tie into the curriculum by teaching a student how to work with something not controllable. With this, it helps the student to better understand the real world in context of his other studies as well.
Overall, this course was really fun and valuable. It was great being able to ride in Wyoming and be with great classmates, and also learn how to interact with animals and enjoy being outside.”