As I approached the Alfond Barn on a cool August morning this summer at Sterling College, all was quiet. Our students were at home, so it was just farm staff and faculty on campus. It felt strange, and I wondered what classes would look like in the fall. So many “what ifs” swirled in my mind that I hardly registered where I was as I crossed the threshold into the barn. However, a few steps in, the smell of horses surrounded me and I was brought into the present.
The smell of horses and the singular thrill of being around them are things that I have loved since I first encountered them when I went riding with a friend. Soon I was cleaning stalls at my local barn in exchange for riding lessons. I am sure my parents thought I would outgrow these pursuits as I left childhood behind, but I never have. Instead, throughout my adolescent and adult life, a horse barn has always been a place to return to, a place that has called me back, a place that feels like home.
Those horse people among you probably know exactly what I’m describing, but for those non-horsey types, the best way that I can describe the feeling is akin to some combination of the peace you experience in the deep woods, the place of mindfulness you can arrive in during meditation, and the familiar smell of your childhood home when you return after an absence—a smell you didn’t even realize you had missed.
At my approach, Carrie and Susie, our new team of chestnut (golden brown) Haflinger ponies pricked up their small, pert ears and watched me with deep brown eyes ringed with thick flaxen (blonde) lashes. Long tails flicked and weight was transferred from foot to foot in anticipation. Air was exhaled gently through velvety grey nostrils.
Carrie and Susie arrived on the Sterling Farm this spring, just a few weeks before the pandemic sent our students home early. Despite the uncertainty of the situation, the unexpected time over the spring and summer months created a beautiful space for me to welcome our new team to the farm, develop trust, and prepare for our students’ return.
Of course, as we welcomed our two new barn residents, it meant that we had to say goodbye to their predecessors as they left for wonderful new homes. It was with mixed emotions that the entire community waved farewell to Rex and Belle, the grey and black (respectively) Percherons who had graced our pastures, woodlot, and the Common for years.
As I started to groom the new ponies, my thoughts went back to the sunny Thursday morning this May, when Belle confidently walked north from Craftsbury Common with her new caretaker, her luxurious dark coat gleaming in the sunlight. She was headed to her new home only a few miles away in the next town. There she will receive the one-on-one attention she so enjoys, and make best use of her vibrant energy and responsive nature.
About a week later, Rex stepped with his customary quiet dignity into a trailer to be driven to his permanent retirement home with a Sterling alum in Vermont about 40 minutes south of Craftsbury. There he enjoyed the daily care, light exercise, and horse and human company that are the markers of an ideal life for an aging equine.
It occurred to me as I harnessed up Susie and Carrie that the outpouring of support for Rex and Belle’s retirement came in part because they were two in a line of trusted equine “professors” who have taught at Sterling as surely as any of the faculty. As teachers, their best subjects were mindfulness, emotional literacy, resilience, and the enigmatic but undeniably powerful human-animal bond. They challenged our confidence even as they built it up.
As I picked up the driving lines, all outside thoughts and reminiscing faded, and I could only feel the leather in my hands, and hear the soft sound of small hooves on the barn floor. I smiled as we headed out for a drive under the expansive Vermont summer sky.
And in this simple act of being present lies much of the magic in a Sterling education. When we are outdoors using our hands and minds together, we’re not “just weeding” in the garden, we’re understanding our food system. We’re not “just herding sheep” but rather appreciating the role heritage breeds play in preserving genetic material for the future. We’re not “just driving horses” but thinking about the future of sustainable agriculture in the 21st century even as we connect deeply with our rich agricultural past, and perhaps, just as importantly, with ourselves.