PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARRELL DODDS
With a smile, Cam Schryver shuffles across the soft dirt of the Thacher School's gymkhana field. Dozens of horseback students zip by at a trot or lope, circling, stopping and spinning their mounts in preparation for an afternoon of gymkhana practice.
Viewed from the small grandstands, the arena appears full of chaos. Along one side, students take turns bouncing over cavaletti, adjusting to hit correct strides. At one end, horses are led through water obstacles and over wooden bridges. In a corner, riders lope toward a burlap sack, and while steering around it, lean off the sides of their saddles, stretching down to the dirt to nab it. In the center stands Schryver, microphone in hand, explaining to a small group how to improve bend around a set of poles.
But while the arena is filled with the California prep school's entire freshman class, gymkhana practice is actually running smoothly. There are no accidents, no spills, no collisions. The class of 2012 has come a long way since first hoisting their then-scuff-free boots into the stirrups nine months ago.
At the start of the school year, these high school freshmen arrived at the Thacher School in Ojai a week before classes were scheduled to begin. After a riding evaluation, the entire class hiked into the Golden Trout Wilderness Area for a multi-day backpacking trip. Classes began soon after their return, along with a yearlong study into horsemanship, a topic that will develop into a lifelong passion for some.
It's an eye-opening intro to life away from Mom and Dad, filled with accountability, self-discovery and self-discipline. From Day 1, students are saddled with chores and charged with the duties of horse ownership. It's a drag for some and a dream come true for others, but the horses don't discriminate; all freshmen undergo initiation from the four-legged faculty.
Schryver, who has been the horse program director for 19 years, stifles a laugh as he explains.
"Those horses are pretty experienced with freshmen," says Schryver, a lifelong rancher and cowboy. "In the first couple weeks, they pretty much maul their freshmen."
It starts the same every year: The freshmen cautiously attempt leadership and the horses casually ignore it. Groundwork turns into the kid moving around the horse, picking hooves becomes a frustrating battle, and it's a safe bet that if a horse is haltered, he's leading the student.
Schryver still isn't sure what finally makes the freshmen snap—the fall heat, the early morning chores, or the utter frustration of being bullied by a 1,000-pound animal—but after about two weeks, they've had it. And that's when their journey really begins.
"There's a collective consciousness," Schryver says. "The lessons start to sink in, and these kids start to snap these horses into line. After that, the horses listen."
Like most incoming students, 15-year-old Chris Yih hadn't spent much time around horses, let alone sat on one. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, his only experiences with horses were from a couple of horse shows he attended as a spectator.
"The horse program puts everyone on a level playing field," says Yih, who recently finished his freshman year. "We're not all on the same page with academics, but most of us have never ridden before, so it gives us all a common thing we can bond over."
Typically, such bonding arises from challenges students face together, such as when Yih's assigned horse, Top Dog, would turn tail and run every time Yih arrived with a halter to catch him. For weeks Yih enlisted the help of his classmates, but the process still took 10 minutes. It was after Yih started adding round pen work to his daily routine that he noticed the gelding had stopped running.
"I didn't really try to fix it," Yih admits. "I didn't know groundwork would result in that, but I'm happy it did."
It's these small discoveries that build the students' confidence and curiosity, Schryver says. Within weeks, those who couldn't tell if a headstall was right side up or inside out are tacking up without help, warming up without instruction, and figuring things out on their own.
"Many students have not experienced the frustration that can come from learning how to ride," Schryver says. "Some maturity comes from confronting the fact that worthwhile things are usually harder to get than you think."
Horsemanship has been a prominent part of a Thacher education since its founding by Sherman Day Thacher, who agreed with an observation often attributed to Winston Churchill that "the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man." Since the school opened in 1889, horses have been credited for building character and camaraderie, and instilling responsibility. But more recently the program has also become an important gateway to the ideals of a fading rural lifestyle.
"A lot of kids that come here may not have had daily chores to do," Schryver says. "There's responsibility that they might not have had before they got here."
Unlike many incoming Thacher students, recent graduate Kendra Carter brought a ranch kid's maturity with her. While some of her classmates grumbled about morning chores and reluctantly trudged to the barns in mucking boots and pajamas, Carter often found herself cleaning stalls and feeding horses for friends who forgot.
"Many of my friends didn't really get the idea of taking care of an animal every morning," says Carter, who was raised on a 3,000-acre ranch in Northern California. "For me it was just normal."
She's always been marked as one who was more mature than her age, or the person you go to in order to get things done.
Even though there are students like Carter in the program, Thacher has never attracted a large population of ranch kids, says Jack Huyler, past horse-program director. Huyler, 89, taught at the school for more than 33 years, and still attends riding practice twice a week in a golf cart to help the students with pickup races.
"We always had about 10 kids who were good hands, about 10 kids who had ridden some in camp," he says. "The rest didn't know the steering wheel from the handbrake."
When founded, the school required every student and faculty member to own a horse (with the exception of one faculty member who had a signed contract stating he never had to "go near the beasts"). Students were also required to ride all four years. Despite being a lifelong horseman, Huyler says the four-year requirement was a mistake.
"It developed the horse boys and the anti-horse boys," Huyler says. "Now we have the horse kids and the non-horse kids, but not the antipathy."
Students are now assigned horses, but many switch from year to year. Carter, for example, traded horses three times in her freshmen year alone. While the experience may have helped earn her the distinction of "top horseman"—an honor bestowed by the faculty upon an elite few students—the 18-year-old cherished her senior year. It was the first she spent with one horse, a 5-year-old bay mare named Tamalina. Despite what the horse's papers say, Carter says she feels a sense of ownership.
Sean Wyatt, also a recent graduate, struggles with the same issue, wondering who will be assigned to his horse, Podoco, when he heads to college.
Wyatt started at Thacher having experienced the horse program vicariously, by way of a sibling. While his older brother didn't pursue the program after his obligation was filled, Wyatt took a strong interest, and after his second year began interning with clinician Richard Winters, a resident trainer at the school.
"I'm not quite sure what I came in thinking I wanted to do," says Wyatt, who grew up in Pomona, California. "But after I started working with Mr. Winters, I decided I want to be horse trainer."
More likely, Wyatt, who is attending Colgate University in New York in the fall, will set his sights on veterinary medicine and keep horse training a side hobby, he says. First and foremost, Thacher is a prep school for the next step, be that the Ivy League or another well-respected university. Still, Schryver says the horse program has influenced a small, but consistent percentage of students' career paths. And, possibly despite their parents' wishes, the program has encouraged a few to run off and buckaroo in Nevada after graduation.
"I often jokingly tell families that if we're really successful, and their kids get too involved with horses and cattle, their income potential will go down after a few years," Schryver says. "But," he adds with a smile, "they'll have a great life."
The Thacher gymkhana teams combine horsemanship with school legacy, pitting the blue, green and orange teams against one another. Upperclassmen who no longer ride can still be heard cheering for their teams when standings are announced at school-wide assemblies.
Upperclassmen lead the teams, but freshmen carry most of the responsibility of representing their teams on the field. By the time they're galloping down the side of the arena, collecting rings on a spear, they're well prepared.
Such a concept was foreign to Laura Benard, who came to the school with a conservative English riding background. The 16-year-old was accustomed to the structure of arena work. A walk around the barn was considered a trail ride, she says.
Before long, Benard, who recently finished her junior year, found herself in a Western saddle, out on trails that weave through the national forest next to Thacher's campus.
The trails are a great asset, Schryver says, as they teach riders to feel and think, rather than analyze every flinch and ear flicker.
"A lot of the trails are dicey," Schryver says. "Often there's a cliff on one side and a steep hill on the other, so it splits their thinking a bit. Students start looking at the terrain rather than being so concerned with a horse's every step. They've got to look where they're going and help the horse get there."
The more she rode, the more Benard found herself loosening up and listening. Instead of riding by rules, she began to ride by feel. It was an important experience for her, as now she co-captains the blue team and aids younger riders in working through horsemanship struggles.
"I've had to learn how to work with freshmen and offer constructive criticism without seeming overbearing," Benard says. "I find I learn more about what I do with my horse, and how I need to improve, by coaching others. It's a good learning experience in that I have to think about what I'm doing, and that makes me more aware of how I'm riding."
With as many as 100 students riding at one time, kids teaching kids is an important aspect of the program, promoting bonding between the students. But captains aren't awarded their duties lightly.
"I try to get those kids in a spot where they can help other kids," Schryver says. "I want to make sure they're grounded in our way of doing things. But kids helping each other get through situations is part of being here."
For Chris Colson, who recently finished his sophomore year, the program has taught him to overcome obstacles alone and how to tackle horsemanship problems. The 16-year-old ranch-raised teen grew up casually riding forest trails, but found himself stumped when confronted with "problem horses." From faculty and students, he learned how to tackle such challenges.
And, like all Thacher students, he's learned a little bit about spurs, too.
"I've come to terms with the idea that sometimes I need to be pushed," Colson says. "I now compare my parents getting on my tail for a history essay to giving my horse that final spur to get him over a hump."
Melissa Cassutt is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.