BENNINGTON — For students at the Hiland Hall School, forestry came to life Friday in a demonstration of logging work with two full-size black Percheron horses: Belle and Bright.
Jared Woodcock, parent of two students at the school, first demonstrated last week about forest ecology — how trees grow.
"We decided not to bring the horses in the first time, because they tend to steal the show," said Woodcock, who works in private forest management.
Woodcock took the about 30 students, ranging from elementary to middle-school age, through a full routine of prepping, grooming and harnessing the horses before leading the team through hauling logs, which will be used for firewood at the school.
Students have also recently learned about trees, forest ecology and the forest habitat, including learning what the living or biotic factors of a forest ecosystem are, like plants, animals, fungi, water and soil.
"Who weighs more — you or the horse?" Quena Crain, elementary group teacher, asked the group before they met Belle and Bright.
"The horse," one replied. Crain cautioned students to walk slowly and calmly around them.
"Horses really like people who are in no hurry to do anything," Woodcock said. The best thing you can do for a horse, he said, is to simply enjoy being with it.
"If anything does go wrong, and the horses do get scared, I will be very direct," he warned the group. "If I seem rude, don't worry about it."
Belle and Bright sat waiting for the group in a blue trailer, attached a truck with a long flatbed used to store a cart.
"This is Belle and Bright — their names are on their noses," Woodcock said.
Belle stuck her head out of the trailer door, chomping on hay.
"I usually take Belle out first, because she's the least patient," Woodcock said. "You can see her big butt — that's where a lot of the power comes from."
One student asked about a bump on one of the horse's legs.
Woodcock said he knew someone would ask about it — a vestigial limb.
In the early days of horses, before they evolved into the animals they are now, they could climb trees, he said.
"So it's likely they had some sort of thumb" — the now-vestigial limb, he said.
Before putting a harness on a working horse, the first thing to do is groom them.
"It puts them in the right mood," Woodcock said. And it scrubs away debris that could irritate the horse once the harness is on.
"It's really important this is really smooth and clean," Woodcock said. He told the students about one day working with Bright, who was having a bad day. The next day, during grooming, he found out why. She had a rose thorn stuck in her back.
It's also important to clean out the horses' feet, although their hoofs are generally hard from working.
"We just clean out the little cracks and crevices," he said.
One girl in a pink sweater asked Woodcock if he knows old the horses were when he got them.
He's only had them about three years, he said. They're older, but they're good workers.
"I am looking for another, younger team," he said.
Woodcock built the cart his horses use in their work, which they're attached to via their harnesses — specifically, New England D-ring harnesses.
One boy asked Woodcock why the other horse — Bright — kept stamping her foot.
It's because she's itchy. "It's probably a bug bite," he said.
Woodcock explained that some people feel owners have to dominate horses, roughly telling them what to do. But that's not the case — you can be gentle and still get them to do what you want.
A bridle, for example, isn't a way to control a horse, Woodcock said.
"It's a way to communicate," he said. Before putting the horses to work, Woodcock said, he does a "pre-flight check" — making sure everything is in order.
After checking the horses and attaching them to their cart, Woodcock lead them up a small grassy hill toward long logs, which they dragged down the hill toward the school.
He asked the students to move as a group multiple times around the horses before they pulled the logs down the hill.
"I'm doing this on purpose," he said. "So [the] horses can see how children move `We've got a feel for these little guys.'"
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.