LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A look at education, through the eyes of a horse

It is one of the laws of nature that, in an organized society, there shall be leaders and there shall be followers. It becomes confusing when a leader pretends to be a leader when he truly is a follower on the inside. Many of our leaders are now bought by big corporations, and the people whom they represent are no longer important. I applaud the students, teachers and parents who spoke up concerning the abuse of the current use of standard testing in our public schools. In the end, their opinions did not matter, and they were slapped with a veto, and all because the state might lose some funding. It appears that today, the only thing that matters is money, money and more money.

Years ago a horseman, Pat Parelli, concluded that the traditional way of training horses was not in the best interest of the horse. Horses were trained using fear, intimidation and mechanics. He spent considerable time observing the behavior of horses while in the herd and developed his “Seven Games of Natural Horsemanship” program.

Many people thought he was crazy, but now, his program is used all over the world. One of my favorite “Parelli-isms” (sayings by Pat) is, If you always do what you have always done, you always get what you have always got.” This is so true with the education system. Every few years they make changes, come up with new tests, give it a new name and spend millions of dollars, only to fail again. Why? Because you really haven’t changed the system.

Twenty years ago, I entered the Parelli program; my classroom is a two-acre pasture and my amazing teacher, a 1,000-pound, full-spirited horse named Sundae. I thought I was learning about horses, but the most important lessons she taught me were about life and relationships. Children and horses really aren’t that different. The great thing about horses is they don’t care who you are, how much money you make, your education or the type of car you drive.

When I entered the herd I was treated like a horse. To earn my place in the pecking order I had to prove I could be trusted, and only then could I earn their respect. To become the herd leader I had to not only prove I could play the games and win, but do it fairly and without taking away the dignity of the horse.

When a horse is about 2 years old he is physically able to carry a rider. You may recall the cowboy movies where the man places the saddle on the horse, and for the next few hours, they battle, the horse to escape his predator and the rider to stay on the horse. In the end, if the horse continues to fight, he is normally declared unsound, and in today’s standard would be sent to the slaughterhouse.

Or, after the horse is physically and mentally beat, the horse accepts the rider. This is referred to as “saddle breaking.” But what is really being broken is the horse’s spirit.

In the years of the cavalry, men and horses were trained very quickly. Horses that did not comply were forced to do so with the use of gadgets such as big bits, spurs and whips. On the other hand, the Indian spent many hours with his trusted steed and they moved as one; no force was needed.

The same could be said for the 5-year-old who enters school. He is no longer a child, but a student who will spend the next 13 years of his life in a classroom seated at a desk, walking in lines, eyes forward, hands at his side and mouth shut with the intention of preparing him to become a successful adult.

The system is very easy: do what is expected and you will be rewarded, or do not comply and you will be punished. Your child is now “broken” into the system, and those who do not conform are referred to doctors for drugs to help them comply. Can we not find a better way to educate our children, a way that does not require they sacrifice their childhood in the process?

To be educated in a subject, three things must happen. First, the student must comprehend the lesson; then, the information must be retained; and finally, the student must be able to apply it to life. With most lessons not fully understood, memorized long enough to pass a test and never applied, I do not call this education, but a waste of time and money.

When I play with a horse, there are some simple rules I follow. The first is: you never knock the curiosity out of a horse. I never repeat the same lesson the same way twice; I accept what is offered, reward the slightest try and finish on a positive note. When my horse reacts, I must know if it was because she was fearful or did not understand my request. I had to learn to speak her language, and most important, to not turn a request into nagging. Every horse is different, as is every child. This is the building of a relationship. Horses and children do not learn when fear is present, and they do not understand discipline. It’s really not that hard.

The one practice I really disapprove of and feel should be outlawed is homework. Now, before you call me crazy, hear me out.

The battle against homework has been documented back as early as 1880. In 1901 homework was legally banned in the state of California. While educators state that homework is a valuable tool, there is little to no proof that it does anything productive. Many teachers don’t grade homework; they only acknowledge if it was done or not. However, there are many studies and numerous books written on the harm of not only homework, but the current educational system. Homework intrudes on a child’s family time and time that could be spent exploring other interests such as music, art or sports. Although many children learn to juggle the load, it is quite a burden to carry.

Parents who have worked all day struggle to get dinner on the table and a few minutes to relax. They are forced to become teachers on subjects that they are not familiar with. The student is also forced to learn in a busy environment, and the kitchen table becomes a war zone as battles erupt over homework. And what about those backpacks, so heavy they literally cripple our children? The average high school student will complete three to four hours of homework a night, not counting larger projects completed on weekends and over vacation. Families go on vacation for quality time, not to do homework.

No one will argue that a quality education is important, but at what cost? School has changed, as we see $20 million schools with state-of-the-art this and that. It seems no amount of money is ever enough.

Today there are lots of educational choices; public, private and charter schools, home school and now, online schools (my favorite). What path you choose isn’t important; they can all lead to success. When I look at how schools were when I was a child, as my children were students and now my grandchildren, I conclude that the outcome is really the same. You graduate high school, go to college or trade school, or you just get a job. What we learn as adults seems to have more value than the education it took to get there.

As long as the basics of reading, writing and math are learned, you are off to a good start. We have pushed for every child to go to college. The average student loan is $3,000, with a national debt of over $19 trillion. There is no guarantee that you will get a dream job or that your life will be a fairy tale. I do applaud DelTech for making it a goal to keep students debt-free. Is modern education creating a national debt crisis?

The ultimate accomplishment in horsemanship is liberty, something a traditional horseman will never achieve. It is when man removes the lead rope and the horse is faced with a choice, to stay with his leader or to flee.

It is time for real education reform. We need to change the relationship between students and education. There must be trust and respect, not demanded, but earned. Life is a journey, and the circle of learning is knowing what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to get there.

If you want great students, forget the tests! Let students and teachers get creative and explore the world. Every lesson should have purpose and meaning. If you want successful students, they must believe in themselves, and they will become great leaders. The horse is a creature of great power, and yet, remains so gentle. Like the horse, education is empowering.

Pat Parelli changed the way people see horses with his ask, don’t tell approach. It is time we ask our children what they want to learn about instead of telling them that, if they don’t learn what’s required, they are failures. “Failure” is a word that has no place in any classroom. Because of my horse I learned to be more observant, patient, calm and creative. She introduced me to nature, fresh air and sunshine. Children need that, too. It’s time to take off the rope, let our children learn in a way that motivates and excites them. I have become a good leader because I was able to see life through the eyes of my horse. There is a better way; if you open your eyes, you will see it, too.

Jowana Lamb

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