WESTMINSTER -- Two boys run down the long hill toward the horse barn at Kurn Hattin Homes.
It's almost 3 o'clock. The sky is all blue, the sun hot but clear. Classes are through for the day, the afternoon snack is done, and it's time for outdoor activities.
Kurn Hattin is a charitable, residential school for children ages 6 to 15 who face disruption in their families, such as illness, social or economic hardship, or substance abuse. Some of the nearly 100 students here will meet up with the walking club for their activity time, while others might play soccer or swim.
And then there's the horsemanship program, led by teacher and lifelong rider Sara Stine.
The boys galumph into the
Sara smiles. Dressed in dun-colored breeches, a black polo shirt and short leather boots, she is happy to see her students. Comfortably riding and responding to the rhythms of these moments, she guides the lesson with a kind, sure hand.
"OK," she says, her voice brisk and warm at once. "Let's get started."
The kids lie face up upon two yoga mats, wearing their helmets, knees bent. Gently, Sara helps them align their knees with their hips, loosen their
"Remember the building blocks," she says. They are several weeks into the program, and the students have learned the Four Basics of Centered Riding, an approach to horsemanship founded in Brattleboro that combines elements of physical therapy and martial arts. Sara is a certified Level II Centered Riding Instructor.
Sara reminds them to think about their bodies as a stack of building blocks to help with balance and alignment. She murmurs, "soft eyes," and the boys' foreheads and necks visibly relax under her attention and care.
"Breathe," she says, "breathe." Their bellies rise and fall. "Remember your center."
It is as if the boys go inside themselves, touch the steady point just below and between their belly buttons and their spines, and unfold back into their whole bodies as they rise.
They are still boys, of course, awkward and growing, but now they are calm. Now they move with a measure of deliberate grace.
Now they are ready for horses.
"I came here to run the riding program in 2008," Sara explained just before the students arrived at the barn. "The herd then was pretty angry. I brought in a new herd, and my number one commitment was that the horses not be mistreated. The goal was to teach the students to be the guardians of the horses' safety, and from that came incredible benefits for the kids."
Students start out learning basic facts about the nature of horses, and how to groom, lead, care for and saddle them.
"The program is made of really structured, sequential baby steps. We first concentrate on helping kids learn to listen to what the horse is telling them," said Sara. "We talk a lot about how to have empathy, how to see that they are in relationship to the horses and that the horses are in relationship to each other. The parallels to their lives at school and home are really powerful, and they see it."
As the students become more centered
The boys, as well as an advanced student-rider who has already earned her reins, lead three Norwegian fjord horses out of their tidy stalls and into the center of the barn, where they attach cross-ties to the bridles.
Or, one boy does. The other stands perplexed.
"I think Samantha is asleep!" he says. Sara laughs and shows him how to check if she's sleeping, how to call to her. Both of their voices are gentle, affectionate and firm with the horse.
Finally, the horsemen-in-training, with the help of Sara and two kind volunteers, carefully groom their horses. They run the curry comb over their broad, dun-colored backs, lift their feet and scrape out the mud from their hooves, and comb their long blond-brown tails.
The horses stand with tremendous patience, responsive to the children's care. Their manes are cut in audacious, supple mohawks, with two strips of light hair bordering a thick black center. Their noses are soft and gray, and their ears curve and pivot as the boys do their job.
The sense of safety and confidence in the barn is both calming and invigorating. It is due in part to the profound ethic of care in which Kurn Hattin holds its students, and in part to Sara's commitment to the well-being of the horses and their riders.
Sara steps back for a moment while the students undo the cross ties and attach rope leads to the bridles.
"Kids come to program, and sometimes they feel like they've never been good at anything they tried," she says. Her eyes are watchful, her body at rest but ready to respond should the horses or students need her.
"They learn to be focused and in the moment. They learn to be respectful and to care for another creature. It's amazing to watch them grow and succeed."
It's time to go outside. The students lead their horses to the ring just down the field, a quiet parade in the September sun, learning from their steeds and their teacher how to balance and ride.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.