Laura Cleveland was struggling. After spending the better part of four years slogging through community college, she knew she needed a change.
“I was kind of going nowhere,” said Cleveland, 22, who has attention deficit disorder and executive function disorder. “I was running in place. I wasn’t learning anything, and I wasn’t going anywhere, but I had my horses. I had this purpose of taking care of these animals, and that got me out of bed every morning.”
Cleveland heard of Landmark College, a two-year institution in Vermont, through a friend’s mother. She found out about the equestrian team through the school’s website, and after speaking with Bethe Jankelson, the team coach, she jumped on board.
“One of the biggest things I always dreaded was having to go up to your professor and telling them you have a learning disorder, and you had to educate them about it,” said Cleveland, Columbia, Md. “You had some old school professors who didn’t believe in it. Here, you don’t even have to have the conversation. You can be proactive and learn how to deal with it. It’s incredibly helpful in establishing a rapport and getting something done instead of focusing on the problem. I feel so con-fident now.”
Lessons At Landmark
Dr. Charles Drake founded Landmark College in 1963 with a vision to provide students with dys-lexia, ADHD and other learning disabilities a place to learn how to manage their issues in a positive educational environment.
The school, in Putney, Vt., has seen steady growth since its two-year associates degree program began in 1984 and now offers four different paths. Students can enroll in language intensive, partial credit, credit and executive function curriculums. It’s not necessary to earn credit in order to attend the school, and many students enroll in Landmark as a pre-college preparation.
“Landmark uses many different tools of teaching to re-excite the students about learning,” said Jankelson, director of adventure education and coach of Landmark’s riding team. “Most students really get sour about learning because they’ve been so stomped on. We re-ignite their passion for learning by giving them the tools and the ambition to succeed. We allow them to succeed.”
Students are provided with every possible resource to tackle their learning disabilities. For many, that simply means meeting with a tutor once a week to keep them on track, while other students may need more intensive assistance.
“They brought me straight back to basics,” said Cathy Cubby, 29, who attended Landmark from 2000-2002. “I didn’t have those important study skills. For your average person, no one needs to sit down and show you how to do that. For people with learning disabilities, you need that. The extra help really made a difference. They improved what I was lacking in my school skills. And now, I’m actually going for my master’s, which was never on the radar screen in my life.”
In addition to this classroom support, Jankelson established the school’s riding team about nine years ago. It’s evolved to include several equine management classes, and eventually Jankelson would like to see the school offer an equine studies associates degree.
“Horses made such a difference in my life that I knew they would make a difference in the students’ [lives],” said Jankelson, 51.
“Once I realized the value of having horses at school, with the ability to provide real life lessons and experiences, I realized it had to be part of their education because it helps them master something. Mastery of skills is directly related to persistence in the college student. They master the hard skills with the horses and are developing the soft skills at the same time. I’ve taught both MIT graduates and students with learning disabilities, and the students with the disabilities learn faster because they have to.”
Why Horses Work
About three years ago, Jankelson met Sharon Morelli, a professional animal trainer who had been working at a horse rescue in New Hampshire. Using natural horsemanship methods, she retrained abused horses so they could be placed in safe homes. When she connected with Jankelson, she brought her concepts to Landmark, where she helped establish the equine management curriculum and is the assistant coach for the riding team.
“Horses in the wild learn how to discern safety from danger by following their herd and being guided for a few years,” said Morelli, Westminster, Vt. “Horses are natural followers. It gives people the perfect opportunity to practice leadership. In a sense, the horse can and will act out the range of feelings from fear to attraction to aggression that humans must learn to balance and deal with in themselves.”
Controlling an emotional creature that weighs 1,000 pounds makes it easier to learn to control your own emotions and feel confident in stressful situations, said Morelli.
“The biggest challenges of college are the people who are too much—too hyper, too depressed—the emotional spectrum is all over,” Morelli added. “With our program, we’re allowing horses to be a tool to understand where they’re at and that they can influence their environment.
A bag might blow across the arena, and the horse may spook. You can’t control that, but you can control your body and your reaction.” This is one of the most important aspects of Land-mark’s equine program—teaching the students how to control their emotions.
“Basically, I’m interested in helping the students and horses reach what I call zero,” said Morelli, 42. “It means they’re completely and utterly calm. They’re not just tolerating it, they’re beyond that. They’re completely calm in any situation. That’s what solves problems. When people learn to become totally calm, they will have better success in communication of any sort.”
She said that for students, calm is generally not in their vocabulary. “They learn a practical way to be calm,” she said. “Then they go pair up with a pony, and everything has to be done in a calm state. You haven’t won the game if you aren’t calm.”
This skill has benefited more than one Landmark student.
“The horses feed off your energy, so they’ll react to how you’re feeling,” said Allie MacDonald, Lexington, Mass. “If you’re at zero you’re calm and in control. The horse will follow. I’ve brought that into my own life. I have very high anxiety, so I’ll be sitting in the middle of a test, and I will think of the horses and find my zero. It helps to find your zone that you can be in to work comfortably with those around you.”
New Languages And Reflections
Students also benefit from learning the in-depth body language skills that are required to manage horses. They come to understand how they use their body language in the world in general.
“For people who suffer from imbalances, horses serve to create healthy boundaries and as accurate bio feedback as to what the human is feeling,” said Morelli. “Horses can only react to what is real and inside a person. They are not fooled by exteriors. Because of this, they will react exactly moment by moment to what the person is feeling. Horses serve as living mirrors for the same things that people feel.”
Morelli also noted that it’s often much easier for students to bond with horses than their own peers. Building this bond is often a steppingstone to becoming more comfortable in social settings.
“Horses can be such a relief. It’s kind of empowering when you can figure things out about them,” said MacDonald, 20.
“For Landmark students who have a lot of issues with anxiety and social issues, when they come to the barn and interact with the horse, that’s sometimes the first interaction with another being where they feel comfortable and in control, and it really gives people a positive, calming experience. I find that after I work with my horse I can achieve more. If I have a paper, I’ll go and work with my horse, get my confidence, then go back to school and use that energy to get my work done.”
Then the Landmark faculty helps students retain these lessons through reflection.
“With kids with learning disabilities, it’s sometimes hard for them to take a lesson and take it home and reflect on it,” said Morelli. “Some-times it seems like they’re not listening or paying attention, but then they’ll come to the reflection at the end of the night and surprise us.”
“We call it our ‘lick and chew’ re-flections,” Jankelson said with a laugh.
Part Of A Team
While the equine management classes are only two years old, Landmark has had an Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team for more than nine years.
“Anyone can ride, and I try to encourage people to take the class first so they can learn about their own skill level so they can be safe. They also learn about their own inner dialogue,” said Jankelson.
“The horse reflects what they are, who they are, what they are in the world, and they gain a tremendous amount of insight through the horse.”
The riding team competes at IHSA shows all year, and while the focus of the team isn’t necessarily blue ribbons, the squad has been successful in more ways than one.
“It’s funny because you come to Landmark, and there’s a whole mix of people. You have ‘normal’ people, and you have people who are really struggling,” said Cleveland. “You can be in an environment that’s really intense, but to have this unifying experience of horses and showing, it kind of gives all of us a safe haven to go to. It’s incredibly close knit, and it makes people feel like they can deal with the stress that comes with school. It gives people a place to go and an outlet to deal with things in school or socially they may struggle with. People underestimate how important team experiences are at times. It’s a chance to play that role of being part of a family and team.”
For MacDonald, who is a co-captain with Cleveland this year and has been a lifelong rider, IHSA shows give her something to focus on and look forward to.
“While academics may not be my favorite thing in the world, I always know that there’s a horse show coming up,” she said. “It’s a good break from the week. Our team is special in the way that we ride to help the horses and to be one with them, and it’s better for the horses, and it’s better for us. It’s for fun—and to show what we’ve learned and how far we’ve come as individuals and as a team.”
“We focus on sportsmanship and the whole show process, the camaraderie,” said Jankelson. “The competition, yes, but it’s less important. We’ve always been in the bottom, but we made fourth place at the end of one show. I was more excited about that than anyone else! It’s more about the experience and bonding and being out in the world.
“I do admit I gloated an awful lot when we won fourth place, though,” she added with a laugh. Encouraging Success Jankelson is focused on continuing to build the program into a nationally recognized program for students with learning disabilities.
“I want to get other colleges to know that we exist, because I know there are many students who are riding and are struggling academically who may have an undiagnosed learning disability, or have one but are not getting the help they need. I want them to know that students have an outlet to come and learn and still get college credit but continue riding,” she said. “It’s tough to be labeled as a ‘special education’ kid your whole life. They can succeed in this program.”
Most students who participated in Landmark’s equine program credit their success to the skills they developed while enrolled.
“I’ve been riding as long as I’ve been diagnosed with a learning disability,” said Cubby, Alstead, N.H. “It was my area that I could succeed in. School was not that area, but riding was, and it definitely made a difference in my self confidence. Too many kids go without an area they can succeed in.”
“This program helps bring calmness and focus to their lives that they might not have otherwise,” said MacDonald. “It’s one of the best things at Landmark, and it could be even better if more people knew about it. It could help many, many more people.”