Walk on the Thacher campus and you’re bound to encounter a pretty unusual sight: Students saddling horses and heading out for an afternoon ride, dust trailing as they hit the Gymkhana Field or a nearby mountain trail. This is the Horse Program, one of the School’s most unique educational experiences—and one of its oldest traditions. It can also be a source of uncertainty or anxiety for prospective students and their families as they navigate the host of other questions that come with considering boarding school. To be sure, there will be challenges: Getting to know an unfamiliar horse, rising early in the morning to muck a barn stall before class, handling difficult moments when your horse is stubborn or scared or flighty. But there will also be moments of accomplishment and wonder: Sitting horseback on a ridge near campus as Ojai’s famous “pink moment” transforms the evening sky, clearing the final jump to win crucial team points in front of the crowd on family weekend, riding bareback into a cool watering hole during a horse camping trip in the backcountry.
|“Moments of accomplishment and wonder.”|
According to rising Thacher senior Maya Wilcox, the Horse Program “is quite the bonding experience for the freshman class” and that “throughout the year, freshmen learn a lot from each other and from their horses about perseverance, responsibility, and patience.” In the days of founder Sherman Day Thacher, horses were a utilitarian necessity, a way to get to town and back at a time when that was the only mode of transportation available. What Mr. Thacher quickly learned, however, was that there was indeed something more powerful in the experience than simply getting from point A to point B, that, as he used to say, “there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a boy.”
Today, one of the first things a new student at Thacher will do is head to the barns to pick up riding gear (boots, helmet, soap, sponge, brush) and take a short, simple riding assessment that helps our riding instructors place students with the right horse and in a riding group that matches their level of experience and skill. As the school year gets rolling, freshmen are paired for the year with a 1500 lb animal who naturally isn’t interested in SSAT scores or GPAs, hometowns or family backgrounds. Freshmen begin working in the same small riding groups every day, learning the basics of feeding, saddling, mucking, and, of course, riding. Many things will become a familiar routine: Getting up early every morning to clean your horse’s stall before class, saddling up your horse in the afternoon for a couple of hours of training and practice, feeding in the early evening, even on weekends.
|“Most of us had never even ridden a horse before coming to Thacher.”|
Loping Into Fall and Winter
The first few months in the Horse Program are packed with big firsts and memorable milestones. The major long-term goal on the horizon: Passing the rider’s test at the end of the fall season, which assesses various elements of horsemanship and determines whether a student is ready for more independence and a greater degree of self-directed training. And while morning mucking and barn chores require consistent effort, they’re easily mastered once you’ve handled a rake and a wheelbarrow a few times. Riding, on the other hand, can be a complex, multi-leveled skill that requires commitment and determination, not to mention plenty of patience. “Learning to ride was a difficult, frustrating, and often emotional journey,” says Maya. There were days when she wanted to give up. However, “what motivated me to get back on my horse were my fellow freshmen, who had fallen off their horses just as I had and gotten right back on.” The support that Maya and her classmates shared as freshman riders fostered friendships that continue to bond them as Thacher seniors who have replaced the daily demands of morning mucking with AP academics and college applications.
|“Riding is a complex, multi-leveled skill that requires commitment and determination.”|
The fall brings with it another first: Horse camping. Small groups of freshmen and riding instructors meticulously pack up horses and burros with supplies before heading out into the Sespe Wilderness on horseback, generally spending a long weekend in the backcountry behind Thacher before making the iconic ride “over the ridge” and back to campus. Looking back on his riding experience, senior Robert Welch put it this way: “The entire freshman horse camping program leads to the freshmen learning again that, hey, it doesn’t matter who I am, what background I come from, we’re all in this together, we’re going to smell after a few hours on these horses, but that’s where most of the fun comes in.”
As the weeks go by, students find themselves accomplishing more and more. Fall Family Weekend is the first big opportunity to demonstrate their successes in front of a crowd that includes family and the Thacher community alike. Each riding group spends the weeks leading up to the event collaboratively developing their own “routine,” a group demonstration that showcases everything they’ve mastered and accomplished in the Horse Program so far.
And as the fall and winter seasons come and go, students pass their riding tests and begin a more independent afternoon riding regimen. They might find themselves loping with friends through Carpenter’s Orchard, their horse’s hooves ringing off the hard-scrabble stone, their knees gripping the saddle, their hands light on the reins, dust rising up behind them, experiencing the joy and satisfaction of well-earned accomplishment.
Excelling at Sports and Riding
Given the time demands of the Horse Program, many Thacher athletes arrive as freshmen wondering how much room is going to be left in the day for sports. Robert was skeptical about riding and worried that his horse commitments would take him away from athletics and the vigorous competition and comradeship he loved. “I love football, love soccer, love all types of sports.” Before long, however, he discovered the opposite: “Gymkhana season comes around and your competitive nature kicks in.” He began to see riding as a new team sport, with new skills to develop, new mental disciplines to learn, and a new team to bond with. And before he knew it, he had the riding bug. By his senior year he was one of Thacher’s top riders and had spent the summer months working in the Rockies as a horse packer.
Twin brothers Evan and Ryan have taken different paths through Thacher’s afternoon options. After playing sports and riding his freshman year, Ryan chose to focus on sports, and has excelled at soccer and at cross country, both of which he captained his senior year. For Evan, on the other hand, one year of riding was not enough. He has ridden every season since he’s been at Thacher—even fitting in a couple of seasons of soccer along the way. Like his brother, Evan had planned on devoting himself to sports at Thacher, but for him, the new challenge of riding captured his competitive spirit. “I now realize that riding is a once in a lifetime experience and I would like to do as much of it as I can before I am off to college,” he says.
Evan has taken his new sport to extremes. A captain of Thacher’s Green Team, Evan has moved beyond Thacher’s gymkhana events into the world of extreme cowboy competition. This fall, he put together a series of impressive performances to fulfill his dream of winning it all in Hamilton, Texas. The championship final run involved 14 distinct challenges (a free ride, roll backs, moguls, a broken jump, spin box, tree bridge, lateral lope left, straight line lead changes, deadman hide drag, cow roping, triple jump, free ride, dismount, and lead to finish) earned him the 2016 Youth World Champion title (and a very impressive belt buckle to boot!). Evan looks forward to riding competitively in college.
Competing for the Blue, Green, or Orange
With spring comes Gymkhana season, the competitive culmination of the year’s hard work. Over the next few months, riders further hone their skills and test and deepen their horse-and-rider partnerships as they compete in a variety of gymkhana races, from barrel and pole racing to ring spearing and silver dollar pick-up. Led by seasoned upperclassmen riders, the freshmen vie for points on one of three teams (Blue, Green, or Orange) for the ultimate Big Gymkhana victory.
|“I felt so proud of us all.”|
Every Saturday throughout the spring students ride out to the Gymkhana Field, where they’ll race against the clock in different events, often sporting ribbons or paint that reflect their team colors and sing-songing team chants across the Gymkhana Field in support of fellow riders. Top riders from a previous week (those who have accumulated the most points to date) sport numbered vests that reflect their rankings—and work to hang onto that vest week after week. Of course the outcome isn’t up to the rider alone. Orrian Arnold observed that it often came down to collaborative effort: “[My horse] taught me that I shouldn’t be down when I make mistakes and that this is a team effort. She taught me that relationships matter.”
Nowhere is the centrality of relationships—between horse and rider, between teammates, between students and instructors—more apparent than it is on Big Gymkhana Family Weekend, which features several days of competition and a big annual barbecue attended by friends, family, and the extended Thacher community. According to Maya, “Riding is usually said to be an individual sport, and at most places it is, but at Thacher, riding is a bonding experience that culminates on Gymkhana Day, when we all race each other and go through obstacle courses. Seeing the difference between the timid and inexperienced freshmen we were in November and the confident and skilled riders that raced in May was a triumphant and fulfilling experience. I felt so proud of us all.”
Through shared challenge and success, Maya and her classmates experienced the enduring sense of accomplishment that is at the core of Thacher’s riding program. “Riding tested my endurance, patience, and emotional strength,” Maya says. “Riding was about having good days and bad days and long term improvement. It was about perseverance and teamwork, lifting each other up and helping each other to get back on when we fell off. Riding taught me how to fail, how to recover, and how to help someone else through the same thing.” Maya and her classmates, like generations of Thacher riders before them, committed themselves to their horses and to each other and, as Maya concludes, “came out of the experience as better people.”
Sure, there will be times in Thacher’s Horse Program when you feel sore and tired, frustrated and even fearful. But, if you commit to the experience, you will improve both your self-confidence and your skills. You will develop friendships born in the cool morning dawn of the barnyard and the bright afternoon light of the Gymkhana field. And, you and your horse will become partners in an adventure that will be all the more rewarding for its real and meaningful challenges.