LEARNING LESSONS ONE HORSE AT A TIME
Story by Andrew gates
photography by Julie Carrasco
Using live horses in the classroom may seem odd to some, but not for Alexandria’s Aliana Shephard. Aliana uses the magic of horses and other animals to enrich the lives of her students at the Burgundy Farm Country Day School.
When asked to describe her teaching, she laughs and prefaces, “Nobody does what I do, so it takes a while to explain it. When people ask, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘Well, how much time do you have?’”
To describe what Aliana does, it is important to go back to Burgundy’s origins. Before it was a school, it was a dairy farm, which meant that animals lived on the grounds and its infrastructure was designed to house them. When it eventually became a PK-8th school, students were free to interact with the animals that remained on site. “When the school was a little less formal, the kids were really hands-on with the animals. Alumni would take goats home for spring break,” says Aliana, who is an alum herself.
As time went on, the students interacted less with the animals. Aliana saw this firsthand during her time as a student. “As the school progressed through time and became more formal, the barn program got chipped away until the animals were kind of just there. That’s what I remembered as a kid is just going down on our lunch break to look at goats and chickens, but we didn’t have any formal instruction.”
Aliana sees animal interaction as a dying component in modern society. “Three generations back, most of our ancestors would have a baseline knowledge of how to put a saddle on a horse and how to be around them. Through not much time, that very quickly went away.” She adds, “Most people 100 years ago had chickens in their yard or next door and that was normal and people understood where their food comes from.”
After a time as a horse trainer and riding instructor, Aliana eventually returned to Burgundy as a teacher in 2014. With her love of animals, she knew that bringing the barn program back was of the utmost importance. “When I came back to the school, I made it my mission to make sure all the kids had exposure to the animals. It’s now become a formal farm studies program.”
The curriculum varies wildly day-to-day based on the students’ interests, the weather, and the behavior of the animals, which today include horses, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys. Lessons can be science-oriented, such as lessons about how a chicken lays an egg or sometimes can be more social-oriented, which Aliana says she finds extremely powerful.
“A big part of what we do is learn how to interact with the horses. I do a unit on animal communication. Students learn to read physical cues from animals and learn about boundaries and communication and they learn how their body language affects the animals. Of course, these skills translate to human interactions as well.”
Having spent her whole life riding, Aliana is adamant that horses can change lives for the better. “I found what [horses] did for me in my confidence and leadership was huge ... When you work with horses, you have to think about more than yourself. It automatically puts you in a leadership position.”
“There is a phrase lots of trainers use; ‘Horses are a mirror to our soul.’ There is something sort of magical about pairings of horses and people and I truly believe that we can learn almost anything about any interaction with horses.”