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January 31, 2022

IT'S WHAT WE DO: CUNY professor creates barnburner literacy program

Author: Liza Frenette
Ilze Earner

“Having horses in my life meant a lot to me,” said Ilze Earner, a longtime CUNY Hunter College associate professor of social work who retired days ago. She's pictured here with Domino, a registered Morgan pulled out of a kill pen two years ago. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Born in a refugee camp in France, where her Latvian parents and brother lived for nine years, Ilze Earner remembers the awkwardness of growing up poor and foreign after her family moved to the United States.

Her family relocated to Long Island under the Marshall Plan when she was just under a year old. She found salvation at five years old, when her older brother took her on a roadside pony ride.

“That was it,” she said, smiling warmly in the cold barn in Hudson, where the whinnying of horses echoed off the high rafters at Whispering Meadows Horse Farm. As a young girl, Earner bartered work for riding lessons, and even competed — though she was self-conscious about her hand-sewn riding outfits.

“Having horses in my life meant a lot to me,” said Earner, a longtime CUNY Hunter College associate professor of social work who retired days ago. “I didn’t feel like the oddball. I felt a sense of power and control on top of a horse I didn’t feel anywhere else.”

Today, the Professional Staff Congress member generously shares her lifelong passion for horses to help local students who are struggling with reading and literacy. The volunteer initiative, called Reading and Riding, is aimed at students ages 9 to 13.

As part the innovative program, Earner reads a chapter from a book relating to barns and animals. She uses a white board to write down vocabulary words from the text – terms for barn utensils, for example. The students then read the same chapter to the horses, either sitting in the stall or standing next to the horse.

Later, students journal about the horses, and incorporate the same vocabulary they were learning during reading sessions.

The students also help clean the stalls, groom the horses, and lead them around the barn, Earner said. This helps build confidence, keep the students engaged and focused, and socialize the horses.

“I think of teaching as not just ‘Here’s the assignment,’ but of opening the world to others,” said Earner, who is setting up a similar program working with young 4H members in the area.

Whispering Meadows Horse Farm

“I’ve seen magic happen with kids and horses,” said Peggy Vitarus, whose daughter Cortney Scionti runs Whispering Meadows.

Earner, who previously worked as a consultant at an Ulster County residential school, saw similar success when troubled students had the chance to interact with horses in a weekly program.

“They were like ‘whoa,’” Earner said. They were taught to brush, groom and lead the horses. The students took photos and wrote stories about the horses and about themselves.
“(The students) became more manageable and cooperative,” Earner said. “And the toughest, meanest girl got on a horse and cried. She said, ‘I feel like I’m on top of the world.’”

As part of the Reading and Riding program, Earner also lets the farm’s miniature donkeys connect with the students. “They have big ears, and they listen,” she said, petting Bogey and Doc. “There’s a whole different sound level here,” she said. “The sounds of a barn are so different.”

“Schools are noisy, with a lot of energy,” said former school librarian Eileen Cunningham, a retired member of the Spackenkill Teachers Association and horse barn volunteer who will be joining the Reading and Riding summer program. Here, she said, “you really need to get quiet with yourself.”

As the horses’ exhale plumes of breath in the cold winter air outside in the fenced corral, Earner is close enough to inhale it as she pats them. She knows these animals can be calming, and they can instill confidence in people.

“Animals are very intuitive,” Earner said. “They communicate in a non-verbal way. They’re not judgmental.”

Earner nuzzles the horse Domino, a registered Morgan pulled out of a kill pen two years ago. He is alert, shiny from being groomed, and eager for treats. Here at Whispering Meadows, there is trail riding available; people can get riding lessons; horses are trained and boarded; and horses are saved and retrained through Safe Haven Rescue, Inc.

Outside, lightly prancing around its mother in the snow, is two and half-month-old foal Luna, who arrived at the farm recently on a full moon, along with her mother Star. Safe Haven bought them at an auction, one of many that sells horses for slaughter at a rate of 80,000 to 10,000 a year.

Luna’s new mane feels like cashmere. She has special markings: a brown shield and a brown medicine hat. The markings are so special that only Native American chiefs were once allowed to ride these horses.

This summer, maybe a student from Hudson will be reading to Luna, and then ride her, and they can swap stories about how they have been saved.