Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Combining Horses And Homework With Home Schooling

Designing their own education programs has helped some riders spend more time in the tack.

For some competitive young equestrians looking for a way to balance their riding and travel schedules with their educations, home schooling makes perfect sense.

Allison Van Sickle, 15, Camarillo, Calif., has been home schooling for seven years.


Designing their own education programs has helped some riders spend more time in the tack.

For some competitive young equestrians looking for a way to balance their riding and travel schedules with their educations, home schooling makes perfect sense.

Allison Van Sickle, 15, Camarillo, Calif., has been home schooling for seven years.

“I went to a private school, which did not allow much time for riding,” she said. “We had talked about home schooling for a while, did a lot of research on it and finally decided to try it.”

She is enrolled in a distance-learning program through Laurel Springs School, so she receives a year’s worth of lessons and then sends in her work every couple of weeks to be graded and returned.

Van Sickle does most of her studies on her own, with assistance from her parents if she has questions and a tutor to help her with Spanish.

“It’s nice,” she said. “My parents are not super involved, but they’re ready to help any time.”

Van Sickle’s dedication has paid off in the ring. In 2003 she won the Zone 10 Mini Medal Finals, San Fernando Valley Horse Show Association, 12 and under, Finals and the CPHA Children’s/Adult Medal Finals. In 2007 she won the CPHA Foundation Equitation Finals, 14 and under, and had numerous other top placings.

In the jumper ring, she and Amazing Grace won the first round of the FEI Children’s Jumping World Finals and finished fifth overall in 2005. In 2007 Van Sickle’s Blue Bayou was the only horse to go clear in all six West Coast Active Riders trials for the 1.30-meter team at Spruce Meadows (Alta.).

“At Spruce Meadows this year, Blue and I were double clear, and the team finished second,” she said. “We also qualified for the 1.30-meter ‘Final Four’ and won. Blue Bayou was also named best horse. The following week we won two of the three classes at Spruce Meadows and were third in the other.”

Event rider Callie Judy, 15, Columbia, Mo., has her eye on competing at the international levels some day. She’s already earned the 2006 junior/young rider preliminary championship at the American Eventing Championships and a team gold medal at the 2006 North American Young Riders Championships CCI*, both riding Kilkenny Castle. She was the 2006 Area IV Young Rider of the Year and the U.S. Eventing Association’s 2006 Junior/Young Rider Preliminary Rider of the Year.

Judy has been home schooling since the seventh grade, using a distance-learning program through the University of Missouri. She teaches herself with some help from her parents.

She spends half the year in Ocala, Fla., training with Olympic medalist Darren Chiacchia, and she takes both her studies and her riding seriously, spending 7 a.m. to noon at the barn and then doing homework for four hours.

“A lot is online, and I also have textbooks,” she explained. “They also have people I can call if I need help. I have to go in for midterms and exams, which I can do at any high school.”

Van Sickle rides in the mornings and does schoolwork in the afternoons. “It is hard to keep up with school when I am at the horse shows, but I work on the weekends when I am at home,” she said.

By home schooling, she is able to go to the shows earlier in the week, stay there all day and ride more horses.

Annie Bagby, 18, Pleasant Hill, Mo., and her sister Cayla, 17, started home schooling when their family moved to an area with a small public school. Parents Melissa and Jim have been teaching the girls at home for four years, since Annie became a freshman in high school.

The Bagby family uses A Beka, which provides a Christian-based program through Pensacola Christian College in Florida. Though Melissa spent more time actively teaching her daughters the first year that they home schooled, Annie and Cayla now use the materials from A Beka to teach themselves most of the time.


Annie is an avid dressage rider competing at fourth level with her 24-year-old Rhineland-Westphalian gelding, Rousseau. She takes regular lessons with Jonni Adams, who used to ride Rousseau, and would like to become a professional rider and trainer some day.

Getting Parents Involved

Van Sickle started riding and showing with Shadowbrook Stables in Moorpark, Calif., when she was 9, beginning with ponies and short stirrup, then graduating to horses and competing in jumpers, medal and equitation classes.

Her parents, both attorneys, needed summer childcare when Van Sickle was 7, so they signed her up for a trail-riding program at the local YMCA. Since their daughter became involved with horses, the family has bought a small property with a four-stall barn, arena and turnouts. They have three trail horses and two miniature donkeys.

“Allison gets up early with her dad to muck and feed each morning, and she repeats the process with me each evening,” said Allison’s mother Diane. “They are a family project.”

Diane takes Allison to the training barn every morning, picks her up early in afternoon and takes her home where she monitors her schoolwork.

“Her dad and I take her to horse shows in our motor home, cheer her on and hand her water bottles as
needed,” said Diane. “She has attended as many as 25 weekend horse shows in a season, not including three weeks in Canada and four weeks at HITS Thermal.”

 The switch to home schooling has taken some adjusting for the whole family. “In the fourth and fifth grades it took more of my time,” said Diane. “I was a fifth-grade teacher before Allison was born, and we wanted to make sure she got good basics.”

In the past few years Allison has done the bulk of her schoolwork on her own, but Diane checks in with her daily to see if she has questions and looks at the work before sending it to her “teacher” for grading and comments.

Home Schooling: A Growing Trend

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many children are home-schooled, and studies vary greatly. But estimates surmise that the number in the United States is currently between 900,000 and 2 million, and the number has been growing between 7 and 15 percent per year.

Since John Holt started the “Growing Without Schooling” concept in the late 1970s, the rate of violence has risen at
public schools, literacy rates have fallen, and parents are looking for alternatives to traditional education.

Parents choose to home school their children for any number of reasons. Some are looking to “drop out” of society, while some religious families aim to combine faith and education at home. Many parents just want to be involved in their children’s formative years.

Some parents choose to do the bulk of teaching themselves, while others choose from the numerous distance-learning programs organized through established schools that provide ready-made curriculums. Most states require that students take standardized achievement tests, and these tests can be administered by parents or at a local public school.

People often wonder whether home schooling provides students with a quality education, and if test scores are any indication, then it seems to be a good way to go.

In 1997, a study of 5,402 home-schooled students from 1,657 families was released, entitled, “Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America.” The study demonstrated that home schoolers, on average, out-performed their counterparts in the public schools by 30 to 37 percentile points in all subjects.

Interestingly, when analyzing the data for eighth graders, it was shown that students who are taught at home for two or more years score substantially higher than students who have been home schooled one year or less. The new home schoolers were scoring on the average in the 59th percentile compared to students home schooled the last two or more years who scored between 86th and 92nd percentile.

There are many ways to approach home schooling. Over the years various groups, co-ops and networks have developed to offer support and advice for home schooling families, and more and more resources have become available. The Internet also provides a way for home schooling families to connect via online groups and message boards.

“I also check every few days for where she is in each subject to make sure we do not get too far behind in any one area,” said Diane. “This year she started taking a ‘lab science.’ We spent Sunday dissecting owl pellets at the kitchen table! So the high school years will take more parental involvement again.”


Finding The Balance

While they may have more time on horseback, do home schoolers miss out on the social life of public and private schools? These three girls make home schooling work for their educations and their social lives.
Home schooling has allowed Judy to travel and keep her horses going year-round, like Allison. She owns two horses, Irish Odyssey, an 8-year-old, Irish Sport Horse mare competing at preliminary level, and Sportsfield Rafiki, a 5-year-old, Irish Sport Horse gelding competing at training level.

“Home schooling definitely makes me more independent,” she said. “I feel more mature than some of my friends. I’m the youngest at the barn; the next youngest is 18, and we all get along fine.”

Though she left friends behind when she stopped going to public school, Judy stays in touch with them via e-mail and the website Facebook and sees them when she is home in Missouri. Of course, she also has friends at the barn and at competitions.

“Home schooling is slowly catching on with the eventers,” Judy said. “Two of the girls on the farm did it but graduated. I have another friend, Ayla Rutherford, who also home schools and rides, and another friend who does half her work at home and half at school.”

Neither Judy, Annie nor Allison find time for sports other than riding, but none of them seems to mind. With their focus firmly on horses, they find time at the barn fulfilling enough.

“We do field trips and activities with a home school co-op, but there are not a lot of other home schoolers around,” said Annie. “There are four or five other families at our church that home school, too. I have never had any problems with people questioning it, and I really enjoy home schooling. Riding is pretty much my life, and it’s time-consuming, so I don’t find much time for other stuff, but on weekends I hang out with friends and go to the movies. Boys aren’t a huge priority and my parents like that!”

Annie also said that home schooling has had a positive effect on her family. “I think that my sister and I might be a little closer because we spend so much time together, and as a family we are definitely closer since we have been home schooling,” she said.

Discipline Is Key

All three girls acknowledged that self-discipline is key to making home schooling work. But who would know better about discipline than horse people who get up early to feed, care for and ride their horses on a
daily basis?

Judy said, “It is hard to motivate yourself to do homework, but I know it’s important. School comes before
riding—my parents are very strict about that.”

Judy’s father Chuck is an emergency room physician, and her mother Grace is a nurse.
“I definitely plan to go to college someday, but I don’t know when or where,” she said. “I’ll probably go to medical school. I’ve shadowed my dad in the ER, and it’s high adrenaline, like eventing.”

Like Judy, Allison finds that discipline is key. “I have not found many disadvantages yet, but it does take self-motivation to get it all done. I would say that it is great to be able to do schoolwork at any time of the day, but it still has to get done. It is really easy to start procrastinating.”

Allison also plans to go to college, but she has not chosen a school or a vocation yet. She would like to be a professional rider and trainer and has set the goal of competing at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships.

Annie agreed with the other girls, “You have to be very disciplined. There are days I don’t want to sit down and study, so I have to make myself do it, but I like that I can finish early and do other things like ride. It’s not as time-consuming as regular school.”

In order to continue having plenty of time to ride, Annie plans to attend a junior college for two years and then transfer to a four-year school. They also plan to have a graduation with their home-school co-op.

Home schooling may not be for everyone, but Judy said, “My advice is to go for it. It allows you to do so
much more—to travel, and to improve your chance to improve your riding. Public school doesn’t give you those options.” 

Amber Heintzberger




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