Partnering Kids with Horses

Maeve on Horse-Drawn Plow

Stephen Leslie originally published this article in the 2011 Fall edition of the Small Farmer’s Journal. Reprinted with permission. Stephen runs our Farmers Apprenticeship.

At Cedar Mountain Farm, we have been hosting school groups for more than a decade. In recent years many of these visits have been under the auspices of the Farm to School Program. As a farm that utilizes work horses we have the opportunity to bring a unique aspect to these visits. Over the years we have come up with a list of practical tasks suitable for third grade students. Several of the projects we have developed are centered on the theme of partnering the kids with our work horses. We feel that the students will have a meaningful and memorable experience on the farm if they are engaged in getting a real job done and especially so when horses are involved. We have created a few scenarios in which the kids and the work horses each carry a piece of the same task.

We begin by introducing the children to the horses and letting them have an opportunity to help groom them and pick out their feet. We then answer questions and discuss the reasons we have work horses on our farm to do jobs that are normally done these days with a tractor. Often these discussions touch on such issues as the growing scarcity of oil and the environmental costs of relying on fossil fuel powered farm machinery. We present our use of horses in positive terms as an enjoyable alternative to farming with tractors, but I am often surprised at how remarkably conscious even the third graders already are of the challenges we face to live more sustainably on the planet.

In the fall the children help us to harvest and box up the winter squash. We talk beforehand about how long the squash will need to keep and the importance of handling it gently (no tossing) and carefully sorting it into the wax boxes according to kind. The teachers and volunteer parents and the farmers all handle the nippers and the children shuttle the fruits. They seem to delight in the hide and seek game of finding the squash amid all the foliage and they are amazed at the quantity of boxed fruits we have at the end of the morning’s session. Estimating the number of pieces and weight for each and all the boxes makes for some fine honing of math skills in the field.

On the next visit we have the kids help to broadcast winter rye over the now empty squash field. Each child receives a 2 gallon pail full of seed. A farm worker shows them how to throw out the seed in a wide swath. They start in a line at one end and work their way down the field. Next the kids return their buckets to the barn and gather round to watch the work horses getting harnessed and hitched to the disc harrows. Everyone then proceeds back to the field, where the children stand with the adults in a designated area and watch as the horses pull the disc to cover the seed that they have sown. Often, many of the students will have taken riding lessons, and some even have saddle horses at home, most of the kids will have been to a fair or farm that offers wagon rides. But for the majority of these kids this will be the first time they will have seen horses doing real work on a farm. When the students return for a farm visit in the spring we show them the verdant stand of rye that they helped to grow with the work horses.

As spring time rolls around we get the children involved in planting the market garden. When it is a question of having a school bus full of eight year olds helping to plant—a seed potato proves to be just about the right size. For the past several years the two third grade classes from our local elementary school have helped us to plant potatoes. Keeping the kids focused and engaged is always the challenge and a big part of that is giving them a job that is fun. It is also important that the task be something they can reasonably handle and see through to completion.

Before the school bus arrives we already have the rows marked out; 18 rows at 200’ with 32” spacing between the rows. As the kids watch from a safe distance, we hitch our trusty old mare to an antique single horse plow with a 10” bottom and we open up the furrows. Once we have the first several furrows established we set the kids up with planting. Each child is given a 1’ measure stick and a 2 gallon pail full of seed potatoes. Then all are instructed on how to set the seed in a straight line in the bottom of the furrow so that the stick fits in between each spud. An adult stands ready at the end of the rows with the sacks of seed potatoes ready to give the kids refills as needed. Other adults work alongside the children. Once all the seed potatoes are set out, the kids, the farmers, the teachers, and the attendant parents, all pitch in with rakes and hoes to make sure all the seed gets covered with soil.

Once the potatoes are up a good six to eight inches the kids come back to help with the first hilling. We start out by hitching up the mare to a single-horse cultivator to loosen up the soil in the rows. As soon as we have a few rows worked up, the kids come in with the hoes and begin to draw the dirt in towards the bases of the plants. This is a big job. A few of these children are farm kids and no strangers to hard work, but most others of them may never have been asked to do a tough physical job before in their young lives. By pulling together in partnership; the kids and the horses, the teachers, parents and farmers, we all get the task done.

The following school year these same kids will return to the farm as fourth graders to help harvest some of the potatoes that they planted with their own hands. They are accompanied in this task by the classes of new third graders who are just beginning their own Farm to School experience. Some of the potatoes that the children harvest will be served in the school cafeteria. And so a cycle is completed and we hope that these seeds which have been planted will last a lifetime.

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