Meeting one hour each week throughout the CGLA school year, the MLP program exposes girls to a variety of hands-on experiences grounded in science, life skills, and leadership development. All three components are closely intertwined within core lessons as girls are challenged to make connections between their work with mustangs and their own lives. With an inquiry-based learning approach, lessons integrate numerous equine experiences, team building activities, question and answer sessions, and reflection opportunities. We use Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, by Heather Smith Thomas, as a resource for the framework of our lessons.
All MLP lessons are aligned with science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) concepts and state curriculum standards, which helps our students to gain critical academic knowledge that ties to their school-day work. Our goal is to provide hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that bring STEAM concepts to life for MLP students and inspire students to want to pursue STEAM careers.
Ensuring students understand and practice safety standards when interacting with the horses is critical, not only for the protection of the girls but also to develop trust and respect with the horses. Every girl is issued a helmet to wear while working with the horses and is taught about safety and proper interactions, such as how to approach the horse, haltering, leading, and proper seating. Every MLP lesson integrates a discussion of proper horse interaction and safety, building upon prior lessons and helping girls continue to develop their equine knowledge.
Interacting with horses up-close on a working farm provides a unique opportunity to learn about anatomy and physiology with the experts: the farm’s veterinarian and farrier. Girls learn about the horse’s anatomy by viewing an actual skeleton of a horse with our farrier, who discusses the horse’s features in detail. The farm’s veterinarian provides several lessons related to veterinary care for horses, focusing, for example, on the anatomy of the leg and hoof, or the equine digestive system. He also teaches about the horse’s reproductive cycle and birthing process. When one of the first groups of girls came through the MLP program, one of the mares was pregnant, and the girls were able to observe her during the pregnancy. She gave birth to her foal in March 2010, and the birth was videotaped and shown to the girls to teach them about the birthing process. The girls also had an opportunity to examine the placenta with the veterinarian and learn more scientific and medical facts about the reproductive system.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has developed an intricate branding system to identify every wild mustang, which reveals the mustang’s state of origin and birth date. MLP students learn about the history of this branding system and are trained to use the BLM’s branding guide. After studying each mustang’s unique brand, students determine their birth date, state of origin, and age. Learning to decode this unique system provides an important opportunity to explore the history of the mustang and to develop each girl’s confidence and sense of accomplishment.
A critical part of understanding health and good care of bodies – both human and equine – is learning about proper nutrition. Girls discover that humans and horses share a number of the same nutritional needs. For instance, both humans and horses need a substantial amount of water which is important for proper digestion, sweating ability, and waste management. However, because of their larger size, horses need much more water than humans. Similarly, horses need much larger portions of food, but the food they need is somewhat different since they are herbivores rather than omnivores like humans. Girls learn about the main categories of food that horses eat every day, the types of nutrients (i.e., fats, proteins, carbohydrates, etc.) they require, the different types of horse feed and what they contain, the role and importance of exercise, and how different health issues determine what kinds of nutrients are needed and/or avoided. Mustangs, for instance, need a great deal of forage and limited amounts of sugar and starch content to mimic the low sugar foods they would find in the wild. Such lessons on horse nutrition naturally lead girls to consider their own eating habits, diet, and nutrition. At MLP we want to encourage our girls to practice and maintain healthful eating habits and active lifestyles.
Building on the anatomy and physiology lessons, girls learn more about the health and care of horses. Dr. Reynolds teaches the girls about the horse’s skeletal structure. Later, Dr. Mike White, the farm’s veterinarian, teaches girls how to find a horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rate and explains why these are so important in keeping track of the health of our horses. Girls are able to try finding and counting pulse and respiration rate after being shown how, and the instructors demonstrate taking a horse’s temperature and allow the girls to practice reading the thermometer. Dr. White also brings a few stethoscopes so that the girls can listen to the heart and respiration rate, as well as listen to gut sounds which ties in to what the girls learn about the horse’s digestive system.
Interacting with and caring for horses properly involves much more than riding lessons; it requires a comprehensive understanding of horse behavior and anatomy. Even learning about a horse’s teeth and eyes informs the students’ treatment of the horses. Girls discover that horse teeth differ from human teeth in a number of ways – especially since horses do not eat meat and their teeth continue to erupt throughout their lives. By examining horses’ teeth and using study materials with images, girls gain an understanding of how horses’ teeth reveal details about their age and health. Girls also learn about horses’ vision, which is critical to safely interacting with horses. By studying the position of a horse’s head, girls are able to determine where and what he is able to see and – more importantly – what he cannot see. They learn, for example, that approaching a horse from the rear where he cannot see is not a safe practice. Experiential lessons like these are immediately applicable and expand the girls’ knowledge and understanding in so many ways.
As our mustangs interact on the farm they have much to teach us about leadership, communication, trust, and respect. Students observe the interactions of the mustangs in the pasture to learn about leadership and the subtle ways in which horses communicate with each other through body language. These observations help girls understand how their own behavior and body language—whether intended or not—affect their interactions and communications with the horse. Girls learn how important it is to give clear, energetic messages to the horse in order to build trust, respect, and a successful partnership. These lessons also inform girls’ daily interactions at school by helping them become aware of how they relate to their teachers and friends and how their actions affect others. Ultimately, the goal of behavioral observations is to help each girl develop skills to create a collaborative community—with the horses and with teachers and peers.
Situated along the Tennessee River, the farm is an ideal place for students to learn all about water – from the water cycle to pond life. Such lessons tie in nicely with what the students study in their science classes and discover in their work in the community garden at CGLA. MLP partners with the science program at CGLA, aligning lessons to state standards and the STEM focus of the school, and we invite environmental experts to the farm to lead the water lesson. At the farm, the girls first review their knowledge of the water cycle, especially evaporation, transpiration, precipitation, and surface and ground water. This conversation then leads to a discussion of watersheds where girls learn the definition and nature of a watershed and then see demonstrations and maps – particularly of the Tennessee River and the farm’s tributary. They also spend time discussing water quality and pollution. It is important for the girls, all of whom live in urban settings, to realize how even they are impacted by water quality and pollution. They gain knowledge of where pollution comes from, how it gets into the water, how to test the quality of water, and how pollution and water quality impact food and, by extension, human health issues. The girls get hands-on experience testing the quality of water at Carter Pond, investigating creatures that live in the pond, and viewing organisms under the microscope. They end the session learning about the importance of taking action and supporting legislation in environmental issues.
Learning to safely approach and catch a horse is an important lesson in building trust and respect with the horse and sets the tone for all horse interactions. Through demonstrations by MLP staff, girls are taught the appropriate fundamentals for preparing to approach and catch a horse: ensuring the lead rope is attached to the halter and is not too long (maximum of 12 feet) and draping the halter and lead rope over their shoulder to allow for smooth haltering. To ensure the horse is not startled, girls are also taught how to speak softly to the horse as they approach and the importance of approaching a horse from the left side and at the shoulder, since most horses are accustomed to being handled from this side. Once girls feel comfortable with approaching and catching techniques, they are allowed to practice with their favorite MLP horses, with guidance from MLP staff.
Learning to halter a horse provides a foundational lesson in horse interaction and communication and allows girls to work through initial fears and uncertainties about horses. Our team leaders work with the girls in small groups and show them the parts of the halter and demonstrate the steps of haltering, with a particular emphasis on how to approach and interact with the horse. Each of the girls is allowed to practice as the other girls help encourage and guide them through the haltering process. Some of the girls are exceptionally confident with haltering, but the biggest successes are the girls who are very fearful but accomplish the task anyway. By the end of the session, all of the girls successfully halter a horse.
Successfully leading a horse requires a strong grounding in proper technique, assertiveness, leadership, and confidence. Teaching students how to lead a horse is a multi-step process lasting several sessions. Using “Rusty,” the horse statue in front of our barn, the girls are given a quick recap of the haltering lesson and are shown the proper placement of their hands, body, the horse’s body, and lead rope while leading. The group then plays a small leading game that helps show the girls how all the parts of a horse need to follow the head in order to get where you want to go safely. Once the girls feel comfortable, we bring out Narci, one of the girls’ favorite horses, for real-life leading practice. Our team leaders demonstrate what NOT to do when leading a horse, and the girls point out the actions being done incorrectly. During the next two leading sessions, each of the girls gets to lead Narci in the round pen while the team leader calls out instruction and direction. At first, not all of the girls feel comfortable leading Narci without the team leader right next to them. However, all of the girls soon grow in confidence and are able to successfully complete a small course around cones on their own.
Learning to safely tie a horse is another fundamental lesson of good horsemanship, as an improperly tied horse can be dangerous to himself, his trainers, or others on the farm. Girls are taught the “dos” and “don’ts” of tying, including the proper type of halter and ropes to use, types of fences/locations NOT to tie to, proper placement and length of the tie, and types of knots to use for tying. To demonstrate the importance of proper tying, MLP staff discuss the types of injuries horses and humans can sustain if the horses are not properly tied, such as neck, head, and eye injuries to the horse and hand or finger injuries to humans. Once girls have a solid understanding of proper tying techniques, they are allowed to practice tying and untying with some of their favorite MLP horses.
Grooming is important to the care of a horse and requires knowledge of grooming brushes and techniques, as well as trust between human and horse. To demonstrate proper grooming, our team leaders review safety precautions, explain the purpose and sequence of each brush, and show how each brush is used. We use our mustang, Narci, for the demonstration since she enjoys taking mud baths in the pasture and is one of the girls’ favorite horses. The girls are divided into pairs, with each girl cleaning and grooming one side of Narci. At first some of the girls are nervous about standing so close to Narci and fear she might step on them or kick them. However, once they get started grooming their tension eases as they gain trust in Narci and realize she is calm and enjoys the grooming process. The team leaders explain how important it is to groom a horse and relate this lesson to the girls’ own personal grooming habits. Each December, MLP students participate in a Christmas Decorating party with the horses, which allows the girls to review grooming basics with the team leaders and learn additional grooming techniques related to show preparation (ribbons, twinkle glitter gel, and hoof polish). The girls enjoy the opportunity to express themselves and the ways in which the MLP program has empowered them.
Building upon prior approaching, haltering and tying lessons, girls learn safe bridling techniques that focus on maintaining a careful and conscientious routine. Girls are first introduced to the various components and functions of the bridle, including the bit, headstall, cheek straps and throatlatch. They learn why proper bridle fit is so important, how to ensure proper bridle fit, and the step-by-step procedures to follow when bridling and unbridling the horse. Once the girls watch several demonstrations and feel comfortable with the bridling process, they are allowed to practice on some of their favorite MLP horses.
As with bridling, saddling a horse requires a careful and conscientious routine to ensure the safety of the horse and rider. MLP staff first introduce the girls to the basics of saddling by showing them the key saddle components that factor into fitting a saddle to horse and rider. Girls learn all steps involved in saddling, including initial grooming preparation, how to properly and gently place the saddle pad and saddle, positioning of the cinch or girth, and how to adjust the stirrups to the correct fit. Special attention is focused on the challenges of cinching the girth to the proper tightness and the issues that can arise if the girth is too loose or too tight. Girls see several demonstrations of saddling and unsaddling and practice the entire saddling process with the assistance of MLP staff.
Building on the saddling lesson, girls learn proper mounting and dismounting techniques, including proper position alongside the horse, how to hold the reins and mane, easing gently into the saddle once mounted, and how to dismount in a single, smooth motion. After discussing mounting and dismounting techniques, MLP staff demonstrate what NOT to do and the girls point out the improper techniques. The girls have an opportunity to practice mounting and dismounting several times and continue to work on their technique during all seat lessons.
Focused on creating a strong connection with the horse, seat lessons help girls establish good posture and position, build trust with the horse, and foster confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Seat lessons are an ongoing process as the girls get more comfortable with the horses and their own abilities to lead, groom, and halter. Team leaders focus initial lessons on the basics of good posture and position to help the girls feel comfortable and confident in the saddle. Each girl masters seating in her own way, and team leaders give each girl specific tasks to help with her riding, such as sitting up straight, keeping the shoulders back, and working on a general sense of pride to facilitate the confidence needed to ride horses. Even though each of the girls experience some initial anxieties and trepidation in riding the horses, they all manage to overcome their fears and eventually walk and trot on the lunge line in a successful, enjoyable manner. Each girl develops a special connection with her horse, and the girls become more interested in being more active in the work required to un-tack and groom the horses after rides. The girls learn true leadership qualities as demonstrated by their desire to assist the team leaders, their confidence in working with the horses, and their joy and personal pride in a job well done.
Maintaining clean stalls is a daily responsibility when caring for a horse, and there are many scientific and economic lessons related to stall maintenance. Our team leaders demonstrate proper cleaning techniques by working side-by-side with girls to clean a stall. Girls learn about the main reasons for cleaning a stall: the high concentration of ammonia that builds up (which is toxic to both humans and equines and can cause respiratory problems) and the caustic properties of manure (which can break down materials it comes in contact with). Our team leaders teach the girls about different materials available to aid in the absorption process (such as shavings, newspaper, straw, and finely milled shavings) and the costs and environmental impact of each. To extend the budgetary discussion, team leaders also discuss the variety of costs required for upkeep of a horse each year, including: vet care, medicine, vaccinations, registration requirements, breeding registry, transportation, housing, grain, hay, equipment, footing, show budgeting, and training.