Once upon a time, they rode horses

Students at THSS getting equine education

Laura Anderson

Laura Anderson

Students stop and stare as Mini Man walks through the corridors of Thomas Haney secondary. A white stripe runs the length of his face down to his pink nose, brown fur coating the rest of his body with the exception of a touch of white by each hoof. Mini Man looks straight ahead, attempting to ignore the crowds gathered around him, the hands that reach out to touch him as he makes his way through the school.

Before class, he is asked to visit the office for a meet-and-greet along with photos that acknowledge the celebrity status that precedes him. Then it is off to work.

Mini Man is led to the rotunda on the ground floor, where 21 students have gathered for a hands-on clinic with the Thomas Haney Equestrian Academy.

From a long line of breeding and at a standard 35 inches high, Mini Man, a 14-year-old miniature horse, will help his owner, Kay Veinotte demonstrate how to drive a horse from a buggy.

Mini Man needs information all the time about where he is going, Veinotte explains to the class.

“We use a lot of voice commands, probably more than riding,” says Veinotte, a Level 1 Equine Canada driving coach.

“Because you can’t just pet your horse like when you are sitting on them. They have to learn to listen.”

To start, she gets one student to hold a bridle over their head and a second student to take the reins at the back to demonstrate.

“Hold on to the reins with one or two pounds of pressure so that the animal feels like your are holding on to them,” explains Veinotte. “If you let go of the reins, they think they are free.”

It is not about pulling the reins in the direction you want to go, rather, giving one or the other a half an inch of slack. To go to the left, give a little with the right hand and to go to the right, the opposite.

“If they are trained well enough, you shouldn’t have to pull on the reins,” she says.

A whip is also used for direction, but not by striking the horse.

“There is a lot of history with driving and the proper way of doing things,” explains Veinotte.

For example, a whip must always be held in the right hand – this rule comes from England – so that passengers can get on and off on the left side of the carriage.

The whip is laid gently on the side of the horse’s leg to tell it to go left or right.

After 15 minutes of practicing on one another, the students are ready to practice on Mini Man. One at a time they take the reins and walk the horse around the rotunda. At first, the students walk the horse in a circle. While trying to get the pressure correct on the reins, they also learn to be vocal. Words like “back,” “whoa,” “walk” and “trot” are used to give instructions to Mini Man. Small cones are set on the ground in a line for the students to zigzag him around.

Finally, after two hours, the cart is hooked up to Mini Man and the driving demonstration wraps up.

Veinotte is one of many guest teachers at the academy since its inception in 2008. Students have also learned about equine law from David Thompson, a lawyer with the Valley Law Group, and about riding from Chelan Kozak, a Canadian Eventing Team Olympian. Gerard Laverty, a master journeyman farrier, talked to them about equine hoof care.

Academy director Shelley Evans, a Level 1 Equine Canada coach with a masters degree in education and 25 years secondary school teaching experience, smiles as she watches the girls gather around Mini Man for their lesson.

“I don’t know why they are all girls,” says Evans. “We are definitely not a girls-only program. They just happen to be [girls] this year. They are just more involved in grass roots programs.”

The academy was founded by Evans and can be completed on campus or online, no horse required.

“We did not want this to be an elitist program for only those with horses,” says Evans. “They just need a passion for horses.”

She has online students from as far away as Prince George, Vernon, Surrey and Chilliwack. The campus class is made up mostly of students from the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district.

“It’s nice that they get together with friends from other schools as part of their academic program,” adds Evans.

The students enter the three-year program in Grade 10 and, if successfully completed, will earn 16 graduation credits.

Students learn everything they need to know about horse ownership and equine studies, including, buying a horse, parasite control, nutrition, tack and attire, vaccinations, stable management, how to haul a horse, feet and shoeing, grooming, dentistry, bandaging and breed genetics, to name a few of the topics covered in the three-year program.

Amanda Ellis, a Westview secondary Grade 12 student, is finishing up her final year. She says learning about the physiology of horses and how to treat different diseases and illnesses was one of the highlights of the program because of the practicality of the lessons. She is able to apply what she knows now to Leo, the 11-year-old dark brown thoroughbred and former racehorse, that she rides. The classes dealing with stable management and the different ways to run a barn were also useful, she said.

Ellis eventually wants to run her own stables.

Emma Cook-Doyle, a Grade 11 student from St. Thomas More secondary in Burnaby, says that horses are a big part of her life and loves that she can get school credit for something she enjoys.

“It is every person’s dream.”

Doyle jumps a 13-year-old chestnut coloured Dutch Warm Blood named Howie. Even so, she primarily enjoys the discipline Hunters – judged on the horses movement and manners – because she feels it is more natural and likes the fact that it is judged on style over speed.

Recently, Doyle found a practical application for lessons learned at school. “I liked the presentation on poultice, when you have to pack the horses foot up so that it doesn’t get infected. My horse stepped on a nail two weeks ago and it came in handy.”

Grade 10 Thomas Haney secondary student Sydney Hallmark, a first-year student to the course, rides two horses, a thoroughbred named Striker and a paint horse named Lacey. So far this year she has enjoyed learning about the inside parts of a horse, about the tendons and ligaments.

“It helps to identify unsoundness. To see if the horses are hurt and where it is coming from,” she says.

At the end of the day, Mini Man is unhitched from the cart and marched through the school again, back to Veinotte’s trailer. But before walking back, Veinotte allows the students one last pet goodbye. As Evans watches the barrage of arms reaching to stroke Mini Man, she stresses the importance of the day’s lesson. The driving clinic introduces students to one of the oldest equestrian disciplines, says Evans.

“It wasn’t that long ago that instead of getting a learner’s licence for a car, they had to learn how to ride a horse.”