STERLING – Xavier Buhlman made a new friend.
He’s short and stocky. He’s got shaggy, brown hair and big, brown eyes. And he’s really smart.
Xavier and Destiny won’t sit next to each other on the bus or chase after each other on the playground, though, because Xavier is a fifth-grader and Destiny is a 17-year-old pony.
About 40 special education students from Merrill Elementary School in Rock Falls got up close and personal with the horses at Copper Bit Ranch north of Sterling during a grant-funded visit Friday.
Jan Whitlock, a third-grade special education teacher, and Tom and Joan Harms, owners of the ranch and former schoolteachers, put together a day filled with hands-on activities.
The students practiced following directions, working together and doing things in order. They hunted for horse tack (halters, horseshoes and the like) in a grassy field. They mucked out stalls. They even ran through an obstacle course.
Emily Spooner and Isabelle Podolski held hands atop a small wooden bridge in the center of a field then took off. Emily, in her neon pink tennies, leapt over a barrel and scaled a low-to-the-ground wall. Isabelle methodically crawled over the barrel and climbed the wall. The girls partnered up, though, to carry a white bucket about 6 feet.
Whitlock, who received the grant from the Bi-County Foundation, said many of the students have a limited view of the world around them.
“A lot of these kids don’t get much exposure to the world outside of their neighborhood or even outside of their own four walls,” she said. “Most of them love animals but never get to see or touch a real, live animal.”
Whitlock said a hands-on learning experience – one that involves all styles of learning – helps the special education students not only learn and retain information but also gain confidence and feel pride.
“In the classroom, they might struggle to understand or keep up,” she said. “But out here, they understand and they succeed because they are experiencing it and they are accomplishing something.”
Jerrill Hill and Deacan Reyel used a muck rake to clean out a stall. The third-graders bravely tackled a fresh pile of manure, scooping it up, sifting out the still-clean bedding and dumping it in a wheelbarrow. Jerrill and Deacan beamed; they were so proud they took on such a big, stinky job.
Tara Harms, the Harmses’ daughter, who has a degree in education, said students – especially special-needs students – learn with all of their senses.
“If they’re audible learners, they can hear the horse and talk to the horse. If they’re more visual, they can see and touch the horse. If they’re more tactile, they can operate buckles and snaps,” she said. “It’s just so neat to watch their faces light up ... and see them get it.”