Horsemanship program strengthens human and spiritual formation

Every Friday afternoon, a group of seminarians from Saint Joseph Seminary College take a class that has no classroom, no desks and no textbooks. Instead, each student straps on a pair of work boots and prepares for a day in the sun.

It’s all part of the Saint Joseph Horsemanship Program, which takes place at the Highlands Riding Center in Folsom, LA, about 10 miles north of the campus. Led by owner Elizabeth Simmons, also a history professor at Saint Joseph, the program uses horses as a medium by which seminarians consider their roles as future priests. It provides opportunities for seminarians to learn responsibility, build confidence and improve team building, aspects of which may be missing from some of the students who take the class each semester. The program began in Fall of 2014.

“I see this as a great opportunity for some of our seminarians who could most benefit from the development of their human and spiritual formation here. Many of these young men will one day serve as spiritual leaders in their community. I want to make sure each one has the skillset necessary to do so,” said Fr. Gregory Boquet, O.S.B., president and rector of the seminary college.

The monumental task of all that is entailed in taking care of horses is at the heart of the horsemanship program, believed to be the only one of its kind at a seminary college in the U.S. Although seminarians get to ride a horse at some point, they must first show they can properly clean stalls, feed and clean the horses, put bridles on them, and exhibit proper techniques on leading the horses around the grounds.

“Our program is taking God’s noblest creature and showing how they emulate us. If a seminarian is tentative around the horse, the horse will be apprehensive. Most people see a big horse and are afraid of it. They are often misjudged, and we use these as examples for students to look at their journey to become a priest and see what kind of person they really are,” Simmons said.

One of the program’s first participants, Kyle Norris, from Beaumont, Texas, grew up around horses and was asked by Fr. Gregory to help out last year when the class started.

“Horses can sense your fear, your tentativeness, you have to mean what you say, but you can’t be rough with them. You have to remember they are animals, so it’s important to create a good balance of self-confidence as well as care for the animal. It all ties directly into being a good leader. You sometimes have to do things you don’t want to do,” Norris said.

But the hardest part for Norris was convincing his classmates to see the fruits of the program, many of whom come into the class stuck in their ways.

This sentiment rang true for current horsemanship student Cade LeBlanc, a second-year seminarian from Lafayette, LA, who wasn’t really sure what to expect on his first day of class, including what horses and working on a farm had to do with the priesthood. His apprehension quickly faded after he connected the dots.

“A farm, like a church parish, must be taken care of and looked after. There are bills that have to be paid, buildings that have to be fixed, and animals that have to be taken care of. A priest is not just a priest to the people, but he is a priest to the whole world and everything that is in it,” LeBlanc said.

Not only has the program allowed LeBlanc to discern the call of God better by giving him opportunity for reflection, but has given him the chance to get to know his fellow seminarians better.

“At seminary, we are all friends in Christ. However, the group at the horsemanship program becomes more than friends…we become true brothers who rely on one another to get the job done. We are a strong family because we have learned to work with one another in times of difficulty and rejoice with one another in times of achievements and victories. The horsemanship program teaches things about priesthood and life that someone cannot learn within the walls of a classroom,” LeBlanc said.

“The toughest part of the program is really yet to come. I have created bonds with the people and the horses at program. When all is said and done, saying goodbye and accepting that the job is done will be the toughest part.”


See also, Future priests learn leadership with horses, from WWL-TV's Ashley Rodrigue.

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