Service Learning is a course that encourages students to go out into the community and volunteer at a local nonprofit or program dedicated to servicing others. The course emphasizes the importance of having compassion for others and being willing to extend yourself to those who may need help.
I’ve always been a big animal lover, so I knew I wanted to help a program that incorporated working with animals. Over a few months, I split my volunteer time between interning at local nonprofit, and working with horses at the Santa Barbara Polo Club.
The local nonprofit is called The Horse Project, and the program rescues, rehabilitates, and re-homes horses who have been abandoned or abused. Every Thursday, I arrive at The Horse Project excited to spend my mornings with these gentle giants. The program currently has three rescued horses: Diego, Ruby, and Savannah. There are two other horses at the site; Sage and Rocky are privately owned residents. I spend most of my time working with Diego, a seven year old guy who is a slightly smaller than the other horses.
Duties as a Volunteer
Cleaning the Paddocks:
Horses need to eat a lot of food, so naturally they will produce a lot of poop. With five horses to look after, we stay busy cleaning up the paddocks.
Horses eat about twenty pounds of food each day. That amount of food is spread out over the course of the day so the horses can’t each too much at once. I usually help with feeding them breakfast in the morning, and again around noon when my volunteer shift is coming to an end.
Fun fact: Horses need to drink up to twenty-five gallons of water everyday!
Keeping the horses fur healthy is an important part of caring for a horse. Along with brushing their fur to help rid shedding hair, I also brush out the manes and tails. When I had first started at The Horse Project, I was shown the proper and most efficient ways to brush out the horses as well as using a pick on their feet to clean out any dried mud or dirt.
Washing a horse is essentially like washing a giant dog. Each week, I help the other volunteer, Carol, when it is time to bathe Diego. Diego has gotten a lot better when it comes to his bathtime. He is good for us during the washing of his body and legs, but when it comes time to rinse him off, he isn’t so willing. I can’t blame him; that water could be pretty cold.
One of my favorite parts of volunteering is when I get to watch the horses roll around in the arena. Throughout the mornings, we bring the horses into an enclosed pen where they can roll as they please on nice sand. If you’re curious what a horse looks like rolling around, imagine how a dog would lay on its back and wiggle about. There is something so adorable about watching a nine-hundred pound horse sprawled out in the sun. I learned that rolling is important for horses so that they stretch out their muscles and release tension they may have in their joints from standing all the time
Strolls through the neighborhood:
Have you ever taken a horse on a walk? I can now say that indeed I have. In between feedings and training activities, I take Diego on a walk in the neighborhood about a half mile from the site. It’s a nice outing for the horses as they can get a change of scenery for a bit.
What did I take away during my time at The Horse Project?
From my time spent working with the horses, I see the importance my own energy has on the environment around me. Horses are highly sensitive and emotionally intelligent animals, so how I feel can affect how the horses react to my commands during training. Having mutual respect between the horse and the trainer is crucial to the training process and establishing a good connection with one another. The horse needs to respect me as the leader, and I also need to have respect and recognition for the horse when they’ve done what I’ve ask of them. The last takeaway from my own experience is that animals are incredibly therapeutic, and working with these sweet giants is calming for me. There is one brushing instance Diego put his head onto my shoulder and relaxes into me. I immediately embrace him back and we just stand there for several minutes.
When I’m not at The Horse Project, I’ve spend a lot time down at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club, helping a former professional polo player, Sebastian, care for his horses that the conditions for polo matches.
Could Marco Play Polo?
I spend a few days a week at the polo club helping to care for the fifteen horses there, as well as helping the trainer get the horses ready during polo matches.
At the barn, I have a routine schedule of feeding, cleaning up after the horses, filling water buckets, and grooming the polo horses. On days where Sebastian has polo games, we load up six horses into his trailer and go to the practice fields where get the horses ready for the game.
Prepping the Polo Ponies
The game of polo consists of two teams each with four players trying to scores goals on the opposing team. There are six periods in the game, with each period being six minutes long. At each interval, a player will saddle up a new horse so only one horse will play one period in the game. For the trainers, that means we have six minutes to make sure the next horse is ready to to play by the time the player comes back.
Getting each horse ready
Groom the horse:
Before any equipment can be put on the horse, it’s important to brush each horse down and get any dirt or dust off.
Braid their tail:
To keep their tail safe from getting tangled during the polo matches, each horse has their tail brushed, braided, and taped neatly.
Wrap their legs:
Wraps are used on all four legs of the horse both to protect them during the fast-paced game, as well as give support to the legs as the horse is being physically exerted.
When saddling up a horse, each saddle needs a pad underneath it to help protect the horse and make the saddle more comfortable. I learn how to properly fit the saddle on the horse’s back and make sure all the buckles are fastened correctly.
Put the bridle on:
The bridle goes over the horse’s head and consists of three parts: the reins, the headband, and the bit. The reins are the first part to go over the horses and they will lay across the horse’s neck for the player to eventually hold. The headband fits on the top of the horse’s head and has straps that fit around the ears and across the forehead. The bit can be difficult to place correctly at first but it should fit in the horse’s mouth with the mouthpiece sitting in the gap between the rows of teeth. Fitting the bridle correctly is challenging and intimidating with all the different parts.
When each horse comes back from playing, we unfasten the saddle and remove it from the horse’s back as quickly as possible. Then the wraps from the legs are taken off, and finally the bridle is removed. During their time in the games, the horses become hot from having to run and sprint, so it is essential to hose each horse off to help them cool down.
Being able to work with horses is an amazing experience and a great learning opportunity. I’ve learned so much about the basics of properly caring and grooming a horse, as well as how to properly saddle them up for a polo match. Working with animals is relaxing and filled with lessons of respect, compassion, trust, and fun.
For those interested in volunteering at The Horse Project visit their website or email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org