Hay, Hay! A Great Free-Range Walk to School

Hi Folks! You gotta love this Philly.com story of a young man, 16, who gets to school the old-fashioned way: By horse. His name is Roby Burch and he lives in Gladwyne, a Philly suburb along the Main Line:

Burch, a sophomore at the Haverford School, has been riding Jet, his big white Percheron, four miles to and from school since early this month. In his blue blazer and tie, jeans, boots, and spurs, he’s an urban cowboy who’s bringing the flavor – and aroma – of the West to the elite private school.

It’s a nice way to start the day,” he says as he saddles up the 12-year-old gelding in a stable at his family’s Gladwyne estate.

Yes, I know: estate. Must be nice. But the boy feeds the horse himself and mucks out (or whatever the word is) all the horse’s business. He’s responsible. He’s worked with horses before. It’s cool. But perhaps even cooler is that the headmaster at his school, Joe Cox, did not object to his student’s mode of commuting:

With liability such a worry that some schools don’t allow tag at recess, cupcakes at parties, or parents into buildings without background checks, you’d think Cox might recoil at such an unconventional idea.

The headmaster admits his first thoughts were: Is this legal? And where are you going to put the horse? The answer to the first was yes and to the second, well, Burch already had a place in mind – a plot of land right next to the headmaster’s house.

“My wife’s not too excited about it,” Cox says, noting the increased dust and earthy smells.

But after getting the green light, Burch helped build a corral next to the house, across the street from the school’s athletic fields.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. But riding one to school just reminds us how cool it can be to buck the trends, assert some independence and ride off happily into the sunset. Or homeroom. Whatever. — Lenore

Some other kids getting to school. (A while back. In Queensland, Australia.)

49 Responses

  1. Love it!

    I’m not surprised that a private school is less risk adverse than public schools often seem to be. They often have more resources, more opportunity to negotiate, and see building leadership skills as part of their core mission. State schools generally have less choice over who they serve and how, and are subject to laws and governmental policies that private schools aren’t.

    Still, it would be lovely if institutions generally showed this sort of flexibility when dealing with requests they aren’t used to. Something to aim for in public service.

  2. That is totally AWESOME!

    This boy shows that young people can be just as responsible (or, in this case, even more so) than some adults are. He is definitely on the right path to excellence. Reminds me of summers on my grandparent’s ranch. Since we were too young to drive (and most of the vehicles were trucks and tractors for use in the fields) if we needed to get somewhere, we’d have to walk or go to the barn and saddle up. Just like this kid, we had to be responsible for our mounts and do what was needed to keep them in good condition, cleaned and fed if we wanted to ride. No slackers allowed. Grandpa saw to it that we knew if you didn’t take care of your horse on the trail, it might not be able to get you back home. In times before motorized vehicles, your horse was your lifeline. It was a serious offense to injure or steal a man’s horse, which usually resulted in hanging the offender.

  3. What I like about this story is that it show patience on the part of this boy, which is all too often a difficult concept for modern kids to grasp, as they are often used to microwave-heated prepared food from a box, drive-thru, seeing the movie instead of reading the book, and other faster, more instant, reconstituted life experiences.

    How many of us are also addicted to hopping in the car to go places, dialing or keyboarding for delivery, and so on? Would we use our cars so much if we each time we wanted to go somewhere, we had to add the gas and other fluids, inflate the tires, then undo it all when we arrived at our destination?

  4. Not quite related, but worth noting:

    Hopkins Not Planning to Freak Out

    Blogger Jim Kennedy’s summary:
    “Eighty thousand people a week, by my math that’s more than four million people a year, year after year, and one guy shot somebody. It would be crazy to install metal detectors and staff them with a bunch of uniformed guards to prevent another occurrence.”

    Perfect, eh?

  5. Very cool. Now that they have a corral built hopefully other students will do the same!

  6. Maybe I’m a cynic, but this story smacks more of entitlement than anything else. I’m going to ride my pony to school AND KEEP IT IN YOUR YARD. Ride a bike, dude, and park it in the bike rack like everybody else. Next we’ll have rich kids flying their helicopters to school and building a helipad on the headmaster’s roof.

    That being said, I think it’s great when kids take responsibility for their animals. Good for him.

  7. OMG, check out the photos. First, that is a pretty big horse. Second, the kid wears deerskin pants with frills, indian style to school. He is a serious bad ass and probably has little trouble attracting the attention of the girls.

  8. hillary, it’s not a pony it’s a horse.

    He is burning no fossil fuels during the ride. If anyone is entitled it’s those driving SUVs and burning fossil fuels.

    This kid looks to have made his own pants from scratch using the skin of a deer he shot himself with his own bow and arrow that he carved from a tree he felled using a stone ax.

    Entitled? LMAO.

  9. also, I’m familiar with that area…. he’d be crossing several main roads that would be quite busy that time of day…. OMG someone arrest those parents!

  10. How about the headmaster using the horse manure for his home or the school’s landscaping needs? Without compensating the boy? Looks like a win-win in that regard.

  11. um, Scott… actually, the Main Line is one of the most old-school, old-money “entitled” areas of the country. and the Haverford School is one of the most elite in the Main Line.

    that said, I liked this kid’s pluck!! priviledged or not, i think his head’s on straight

  12. Please don’t give my daughter any ideas! She would be in heaven if she could ride her pony to school and back.

  13. Mean while the carpool generation cannot cross streets in college

  14. mvb, sure but it’s not his fault his parents are well off. If he was so entitled he’d be driven to school by the family chauffeur in their Bentley.

  15. Also, as I mentioned before I bought my pony with money I earned selling eggs from chickens I raised. It’s definitely not true that having a horse or pony is the mark of wealth. I’d say most kids in the US that have horses are pretty poor and live in rural areas. Again, entitlement is thinking you deserve cheap oil from Saudi Arabia and it’s OK to use the military to ensure that oil continues to flow.

  16. Hillary – of course, to some extent it’s entitlement. But logically not any more than a kid who wants to ride their bike to school and keep it on school grounds. The kid is obviously from a privileged background. But really, to a lesser extent, so is pretty much every kid in the Western world. The kid didn’t demand the right – he asked to be able to ride and came up with ways to make it work. The school didn’t stand in his way on grounds of fear. What’s so awful about that?

  17. “He is a serious bad ass and probably has little trouble attracting the attention of the girls.”

    Chicks dig bad boys.

    I think what struck me most about this story was the responsibility the teen takes in caring for his horse. That shows great maturity on his part, far more than some adults show towards their animals.

  18. scott, you’re absolutely right. There is a big difference between being “priviledged” (in the sense of well off, able to afford certain things), and “entitled” (in the sense of believing the world owes you certain things).

    I get the distinct impression from the article that this boy does not suffer from the latter. I didn’t mean to jump on your comment — it’s just that I do know people from the area that most certainly do suffer from entitlement syndrome.

  19. My daughter goes to a small (not in the least cashed up) public school. We live in a city fringe area, not quite suburb, not quite town. A girl often rides her horse to school, her Mum usually walks with them or behind them, just so she can lead the horse home again. Also at the sports carnival two eleven year old girls who live near us rode their horses and watched from the far side of the oval (p.s. sports carnivals are fun when there are only two boys in a grade). I often see those girls ride past our house and think how amazing it must be to have that sense of independence and power. These are not wealthy girls, houses were very cheap round here a few years ago when their parents would have moved in (before we bought natch – now houses are not cheap anywhere).

  20. This story reminded me of a wonderful story book about how children around the world get to school (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/This-Way-We-Go-School/dp/0590431625).

    Some children ski, some take a water taxi, etc. etc. Don’t remember is anyone goes by horse!

  21. mvb, yeah I knew you weren’t jumping on my comment, I was more continuing the thought train as the Bentley angle occurred to me.

    Some people are going to be more financially successful than others. It seems to me his parents have done a good job with him and are using their financial resources to give him good opportunities that benefit the world. That someone is riding his horse to school somewhere is a positive thing for the world.

  22. love your photo – Im from queensland 🙂

    Our grandfathers used to ride to school. The primary school I went to was one of the first in the area, and we had photos of people ‘riding’ to school many years ago on the walls.

    However if everyone rode to school, it probably wouldnt be so good, the horses just sitting there waiting all day.

    But I love how something that used to be common – now is uber cool. What a kid!

  23. I love this. A free-range victory, the more the better. Let’s keep them coming–the stories & heck, the victories themselves. Nice to see that sanity STILL exists somewhere.

  24. Nice to hear that SOMEONE in my general area–SE Pennsylvania, but I’m waaaaay too broke for the Main Line–is doing something halfway sensible for a change. At least his mommy (or maybe it would be the nanny in that area?) isn’t driving him ten feet down the driveway every day just to wait for the school bus.

  25. Meh, I think it’s sort of entitled and I feel bad for that horse having to walk on pavement. It’s interesting, and maybe if the kid was like, 12 I would be “ooh, how neat!”. But 16? Making your head master and his wife give up part of their yard? I think that’s sort of icky.

    I went to middle school with kids that woke up at 4 a.m. to do two hours of farm chores before going to school, and then returned home to do the same. When I lived in the city at the end of high school I knew teens who road public transit for an hour and a half to go to their magnet school across town. I think, to me, those are much more free range, and show much more character than that story.

  26. @ Nicole, I disagree. The kid isn’t “making” the headmaster do anything. He asked for permission, and the headmaster agreed. The headmaster could’ve said “no” both to the horse and to keeping it in his yard.

    As for the horse walking on the pavement, horses do it all the time. Ever see horses pulling carriages through cities?

    I also read that the teen spent a summer as a ranch hand, doing chores, etc. I think that’s pretty darn cool too.

  27. @ Nicole – Asking for and getting permission to do something is NOT “making” the headmaster do it. The headmaster could have said “no.” There is no indication in this article that this kid or his parents have the power to or did threaten to fire the headmaster if he refused to allow him to bring the horse to school and plant it in his yard. There is no indication that the boy went over his head to his bosses who made him do it. That would be “making” the headmaster do something. Simply coming up with a plan and getting it done is not “making,” any more than it could be said that my child made me take her to the park today. She didn’t make me; she asked and I said okay. Some days I say no.

    No wonder we accomplish so little in this fight (and, frankly, this country anymore). Apparently if you get the school to agree to your child doing something independent, but slightly out of the norm, some are going to start shouting “entitlement.” Yes, this kid is rich but his parents seem to have raised him well. He doesn’t seem to have approached this as an entitlement at all. As a matter of fact, the article said that he BUILT the corral for the horse. He didn’t just insist the the school or daddy’s employees do it. He helped do it himself. That is as about as unentitled as I can imagine.

  28. The thing that impresses me the most about this story is not that the boy cares for his horse well – I was doing that at 13 and working at a horse barn every saturday in exchange for winter boarding – it’s that he appeared to have done this all himself. He came up with the idea and the plan and he got the school to agree. He didn’t decide that he wanted to do something and then leave mom and dad to make it so.

  29. It’s very cute, but horses are not necessarily better for the environment than driving. They eat a lot, and I wonder what he does with all that manure–15-35 pounds a day. I found this article about the state of NYC before the advent of automobiles:

  30. Wow, that kid’s family must be huge donors to the school if the headmaster was willing to annoy his wife by inflicting “increased dust and earthy smells” on her.

  31. Having spent most of my school years on the edges of the Main Line (Devon/Paoli) where you can’t throw something without hitting a private school… I’m actually surprised he’s got a horse, everyone I went to school with was more disappointed when their parents gave them the used Lexus/Audi/BMW instead of the brand new one for their 16th birthday… Me, I was happy to borrow the 8-year-old Honda with 100,000 miles on it when I could…
    It’s very cool that someone, anyone, in the area doesn’t drive in some way, shape or form, to school.

  32. “but horses are not necessarily better for the environment than driving”

    It would definitely be interesting to see your information analyzing the cost of refining steel, purifying semiconductor wafers, shipment costs, disposal costs, and the cost of using irreplaceable post-peak oil for an SUV during its 5 yr average lifespan before the warranty expires and it is replaced. I’d assume the horse makes more sense long term than automobiles.

    But even more sensible would be to stop building these megaschools that require busing and driving from miles around and return to neighborhood schools that are within walking, biking and riding distance.

  33. By the way, the source of the article about how horses are worse than cars is the Environmental Literacy Council, which is a known propaganda front operation and not a legitimate source of information about environmental issues. It was “founded” by one of Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney’s professional propaganda artists Jeffrey Salmon who wrote spin speeches for Dick. The ELC has since been disbanded after it was discovered they share office space and financing with the George C. Marshall Institute, a radical extremist pro-oil company front organization primarily financed by Exxon Corp.

  34. I remember in 2008 a man from Charleston parked his car and decided to ride his horse to work in protest of high gas prices. I love that this kids picked his own mode of school transport. Now that’s a statement.

  35. fantastic post, i love this site

  36. @Scott – clap.

  37. Wonderful story! Here’s a young man who negotiated space for his horse, built a corral, mucks it out himself, cares for his horse’s tack himself, and makes sure that his horse is exercised nearly every day. The reports at fuglyblog paint a different picture of the average privileged kid. Most of them, apparently, treat their horses as just another disposable accessory that somebody else has to clean and store.

    The horse pictured in this blog entry, BTW, would probably get a writeup at fuglyblog if it were alive today. Look at the way it’s standing and holding its head. It’s overloaded, pissed off, and sore. The actual horse in the article is something else entirely. If I could afford a horse for my kids, a big calm Percheron like that one would be high on my list. And note that he is only expected to carry one person at a time!

  38. Scott, seriously, there are 250 million cars in the U.S. and about 8 million horses. Can you imagine the amount of shit generated by an extra 242 million horses on the road, and the effects that would have on health and land consumption? You don’t have to be a Haliburtan crony to realize that.

  39. “risk averse”, not “risk adverse”, btw.

    The coda, however:

    When he turns 17, he hopes to trade in Jet for a different sort of ride.

    “I want a truck,” he says.

  40. Except, Sky, that not all those cars are on the road at one time.

    Furthermore, there are options besides “horse” and “car” – for example, public transportation, even when pulled by horses, is more efficient than one vehicle per person.

    Or, to be a little less silly, you can have bikes or you can walk, you can build communities (or retrofit them if possible) to be less sprawl-y, you can use normal public transportation rather than horse-powered….

    The whole argument is silly.

  41. And then there’s the point that no one is advocating that we replace all the cars with horses.

    This is a story about a kid who has the means to own and care for the horse and dispose of the waste, riding a horse to school, where the school has the means to keep it during the day. I don’t believe Lenore or anyone else is making a recommendation about what everyone should do.

    Or, look at it this way: this kid has a horse. He’s going to ride it anyway. It’s going to poop anyway. Is it better for him to ride it to school, or to be driven?

  42. Oh, and as for the headmaster’s family giving up part of their yard: how big do we want to guess the headmaster’s garden is at a place like Haverford? And how much space does one horse take up?

  43. I just passed two boys on their way to school–by themselves. Yay!

    However, while the younger one (6-7 y.o.) was on a simple Razor scooter, the older (8-9 y.o.) was sitting down on a *motorized* Razor.

    I doubt the school is more than a quarter of a mile away. At least the littler kid is getting some exercise.

  44. As long as we are being perfectly reasonable…

    Clearly animal excrement is the #1 potential threat to the environment in the post-oil period.

    Only by killing all horses, animals, nay, all mammals, and replacing them with nuclear powered robotic simulacrum can we have a clean and safe environment.

    There is no other way.

  45. I had a horse when I was a kid and I would have killed to ride to school. My horse was boarded–no kept at my home–and in my free time I rode everywhere *but* school, including through subdivisions, on busy streets, to Dairy Queen, etc. Alone. No adults. I was between the ages of 14 and 17. Note: I bought the horse with my own money, earned from a paper route. By the time I got to high school, I moved on to a job in a college cafeteria, and by my senior year I worked in a factory after school.

    Off the subject a bit, but in one school district where I live, budget cuts may force the redrawing of the “walking zone,” that is, the area around the school where kids are considered close enough to be able to walk to school. This is meant to reduce transportation costs. Not sure if they really expect kids to walk, or if this “walking zone” is just a euphemism for “you’re so close your mom will have to drive you to school.”

  46. I always thought it was very cool that my father had riden a horse to a rural 1-8 one-room school when he was a kid in the late 30s and early 40s. The farm I grew up on was just outside the north city limits of a pop. 4000 small town; my high school was on the south side about 2 miles away. One night when I was a junior or senior (mid ’70s) I “laid down for a nap” and woke up around 4 am. With nothing better to do, I said today’s the day I continue the family tradition. I got my chores done a couple of hours early and saddled my sister’s sweet, gentle saddle horse around sunrise. (My cow pony, who I believe had some wolverine genes, was not suitable to this project.) Then I rode Greedy Gut to school and tied him on a long halter out on the edge of the practice football field where there was plenty of grazing and a creek-sized ditch to drink from, and tossed the tack in the corner of my homeroom to the utter amazement of my from-Jersey soc teacher. One of my favorite memories of high school and yes, several of the girls wanted to go for rides after school.

  47. Scott — win.

    That’s exactly what I was thinking — the people who are saying it’s not environmentally friendly because the horse poops, what’s the logical alternative? Drive to school and kill the horse? Ban horses and initiate immediate sterilization of all existing horses?

    I know no one’s suggesting that, but if the horse IS ALREADY ALIVE then the kid riding it is only increasing the excrement in proportion to how much extra food the horse needs to carry the kid to school, which is probably not a great percentage increase, for a big horse like that taking the trip at what is apparently a slow walk.

  48. Let me just say this,
    I know this kid and he does get all the girls.

  49. This young man is my son and I have been blown awy by the amount of interest this little experiment has generated. Roby and I thought the local paper might pick this up after he had been riding for a few months but we never expected this. A few comments:

    We have owned this horse for 10 years and bought him for $800.

    So far – amazingly – Jet hasn’t left any manure in route – in over four weeks. When he does, Roby plans to dispose of it.

    Roby understands that this is a real privledge but I hope doesn’t feel entitled. After all, it’s a private school and he lives in a nice neighborhood – but that’s not his fault.

    The headmaster is a friend and because of that is extra careful not to play favorites. The corral was built next to his house on an empty lot that was going to have tennis courts until the neighbors complained. He would have made the same leap of faith insupporting a good idea from a capable young man for any of the 900 students at Haverford.

    We’re getting a lot of entitled kid comments but that’s understanable. Also getting very positive support from 90% of the people.

    In the end, this has been a good project, too much attention but a very healthy dialogue. I’m not sure that Roby will continue for the full ear – it is totally up to him – but so far he seems to really enjoy the riding, the quiet time twice a day and of course- like any sixteen year old – it’s nice to be noticed.

    Roby’s Dad

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