Right after Easter, we began the girls' long-awaited unit study on horses. I've experimented with unit studies since January, thinking I might be able to adopt that method for our homeschool, and we've actually done eight different units this semester - on everything from Light to Dr. Seuss to Easter. I was committed to giving it a fair shot, but knew by the beginning of the third unit that the approach wasn't a great fit for us; I need a bit more structure and guidance so I can rest assured that we're covering all the bases, and, frankly, I don't have the time to diligently plan the units on my own. So I decided at that time that we'd switch to My Father's World (MFW) starting with our next semester (beginning in August), and I am so excited about what MFW offers that I can hardly wait until then! But I had told the girls about the horse unit way back in the winter. And, since they love horses as much as most seven- and eight-year old girls (does something on a gene get triggered at that age?!), I couldn't possibly disappoint them.
We started right after Easter and have had a great time reading tons of horse books together, including Black Beauty. We've learned about horse breeds, horse anatomy, and all sorts of uses for horses. The girls have enjoyed coloring many horse pictures, and we've watched National Velvet, Spirit, and Flicka, as well as The Kentucky Derby and The Preakness (and we'll almost surely catch The Belmont when it's on in a couple of weeks). They've played horse games, put together horse puzzles, and made horse crafts. Last week, we even went to see a Remington exhibit in a nearby city to wrap up our cowboy portion of the unit. And later this weekend we'll have a cowboy cookout.
But we could have chosen no better culminating activity than the experience with which we were blessed today: spending an entire day on a friend's hobby farm.
Linnea is one of Jeff's co-workers - a wonderfully sweet woman who's always made our entire family feel welcome at any company event we attend. So it was no surprise that she invited us out to her place when Jeff mentioned the horse unit. She said we could come care for and ride her horses, play in the pond, explore the property, and join her family for a cookout.
And today was the big day. We arrived shortly after 10:00 and - after a tour of the house that included a stop at the fishtank to watch the puffer fish devour home-grown snails - we met the horses: Ruger, Beauty, and Vegas. Linnea and her sweet teenage son, Garrett, helped the girls measure grain and then led the horses into their stalls to eat up. While they did that, we jumped into our first job of the day: mucking out the rest of the barn - yep, shoveling up all the poop and wet hay! Abbie gave it a good, solid effort, but - as enthralled as she is with horses - she couldn't help feeling the task was "gross." :^) Rachel, on the other hand, took to it like the true little tomboy God's created her to be! She shoveled up two or three piles herself and raked plenty more into shape, basking in the joy of a job well-done.
After that, Linnea brought out Ruger, a frisky young quarter horse and the lone male of the three, along with her grooming tools. And she coached the girls as they groomed him. They used the shedding comb and brush, combed out his mane (though Linnea did the tail!), and even cleaned his hooves. Then she brought out his tack - bridle, blanket, saddle, and a fancy bead necklace with bells - and explained every step in the process as she saddled him up.
Rachel had decided she wanted to ride Ruger so, when all was in place, Linnea taught her how to mount - and up she went, beaming with glee.
Abbie wanted to ride Beauty, a 25-year old thoroughbred who had the perfect gentle spirit for our little princess. So the girls groomed her, and Linnea saddled her up. Then Abbie learned to mount, needing only a little boost to reach the stirrup before doing the rest herself.
We started toward the little paddock area where Linnea could give the girls some basic riding instructions, and as soon as we headed out, Vegas started neighing from her stall, undoubtedly jealous that she wasn't being ridden, too. Linnea said she'd be fine, but I couldn't help feeling bad for her.
The girls had fun learning and practicing some basic commands in the paddock and soon decided they wanted to walk around the family's large, man-made pond. Vegas heard us coming back and neighed again, about which I commented when we rounded the last corner of the pond. So Linnea said, "Do you want to ride him? I can saddle him in just a few minutes!" I hadn't really thought of me riding today, but I, too, had that "horse gene" as a little girl and greatly enjoyed the few trail rides I got to take back then. So - much to Jeff's surprise, I think - I happily said yes. And before long, I was mounting Vegas, a pretty sorrel pinto. The girls grinned at me, and I knew I'd made a perfect momma impression on them. I settled in and had a wonderful ride with them on two different wooded trails.
The whole time the girls were on the horses, Linnea walked with Ruger and Rachel, and Jeff went with Beauty and Abbie. They started out lightly holding the lead lines, but I knew from helping Rachel while Linnea saddled Vegas that the girls really controlled the horses with their reins; the lead lines were precautionary, but certainly not what the horses were paying attention to. So, after just a short time on the first trail, they asked if the leads could be rolled up. Linnea and Jeff still walked alongside the horses, but from that point on the girls were actually controlling the horses all on their own - a sight that brought "happy tears" to my eyes.
After another short time in the paddock - during which I let Jeff have a turn on Vegas - and a few minutes at a little pond - in which Ruger took a bath! - it was time to rest the horses and grab some lunch - because it was already 3:00!
Linnea had happily given us most of her day, and then we enjoyed a nice cookout prepared by her husband, Dennis; we marveled at their unmistakable gift of hospitality.
And she had a surprise for the girls, too. While she went to retrieve it, Jeff and the girls enjoyed a paddleboat ride around the pond and we all climbed up into the playhouse Dennis had built when his kids were younger. Then, as we were watching some of the thousands of tadpoles in the pond, Linnea rode up in an Amish horse cart pulled by her neighbor's horse, Missy. And Jeff took them for a little two-mile trot, came back, and asked to take me out for a spin as well - a fun end to a great day. :^)
By the time we drove away, it was 6:00! We were amazed that the time had flown so quickly and that, not only had Linnea and her family given us their whole day, she also invited us to come back whenever we want. Which, of course, would be next week if the girls had their way! But, at the very least, we'd like this year to go once in the summer and then again in October so we can take to the trails when the leaves are their most beautiful.
Obviously, not every unit of study can end in a "big" culminating activity. For the next three weeks, we'll be studying about Australia to provide a framework for the several days during which I'll be caring full time for my school-age daycare charges and also as a means of introducing this year's Vacation Bible Camp theme, Boomerang Canyon, at our church. Though we'll do plenty of neat activities, we won't be finishing up with a flight to Australia! But I'm so thankful we could provide this ultimate experience today, especially with something so near to the girls' precious hearts.