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.”