ichela and I were were always distracted in our high school Latin and Italian classes. We’d listen to the lecture but pass notes on the side. Our passion for reading made up for any concentration lapses. We always felt on top of our game.
Not surprisingly, Professor Lorini, our teacher, saw it differently. Still, we managed to get good grades — better than rest of the class, a fun and rowdy group of teenagers that had everything but Latin in mind.
Professor Lorini scolded the two us, Michela more than me (probably already seeing me as hopelessly selfish). She’d call Michela by her last name, De Pasquale, common practice in Italian middle and high school when a superior wants to make a point. “It all comes so easily to you,” Lorini told her. “You should help others! You’re a natural born teacher!”
Michela was a natural born teacher. Just not of Latin.
Her real passion was horses: riding them, training them, teaching other people to ride them. Her grandfather (a horse aficionado) first put her in the saddle at age three. At nine, she was riding regularly. Today, she runs a riding school.
When I met her at the school, which she opened in San Pietro Terme, near Bologna 2009, she was trailed by a group of mostly under-10 kids, her students. The school is called Il club dei Nani (nano means dwarf in Italian) to honor the fact that she has mostly ponies, the smallest and shortest member of the horse family. Small they may be, but no less strong-willed.
“I tamed and trained every last one of them,” says Michela proudly. The school has 12 horses, mostly ponies of different heights. Some are almost the height of a regular horse and are used in the adult section of the school.
Looking at the ponies (some average less than a meter tall) can make you think they were chosen for their fashion value. They’re cute. Ercole, for example, has an incredibly long and blonde mane and tail that whips around in the wind. Carmen’s blue eyes shimmer against her dark coat. Rosetta has piercing eyes, one blue, one brown. Martino, Rosetta’s foal, follows in tow: he’s not trained yet and primarily functions as the club’s mascot.
Michela admits to her weakness for these attractive little creatures. “It does help kids when they take a liking in them right away, and looking cute helps,” she says. “But the truth is that ponies are good for children. By interacting with a horse of that height, kids can do anything an adult can.”
The kids listen to Michela attentively. Respect is a key word in Michela’s world. She also expects her students pay attention to the needs of their classmates and to honor the horses.
In that context, her horses are shoeless. “It’s part of having them live a life that’s a natural as possible,” she says. “When shoeless they can walk more easily on grass and snow. They can use their feet as sensory organs and live a better social life. Horses are bound to kick each other, that’s what they do. They can really hurt each other when they’re shoed. This they can enjoy each other’s company.”
And friendship is very important to the horses. Every horse has a friend they spend time with in the paddocks. “My horse Teo is a Bardigiano stallion and has another stallion for a friend. On the face of it, that combination might seem impossible, but these two horses they really love each others’ company.” It just doesn’t matter that Teo’s best friend is diminutive Ercole. They both look full of pride when I walk past them.
For an outsider, training can seem like an act of magic. “It’s a lot of repetition, a lot of communication, and a lot of being open to understand their timing,” explains Michaela. “Sometimes you have to know to backtrack when they’re not ready. I don’t set a goal. I try to understand them.”
The same patient concept hold true in teach people to ride, which in many cases involved surmounting human doubt and fear. Michela’s ranch boasts a slew of success stories. Her students have won medals in competition.
But that’s not what Michela underscores. She likes people stories. She speaks of Mario Pedretti instead, a machine fitter with a knack for photography and a love for horses, who brought Luce to the ranch. At first, the Murgese mare was so anxious she’d foam at the mouth as soon as she was led out of the stable “She was scared of people at the start,” says Michaela. No longer. “She’s so comfortable now even beginners can ride her.”
How did she do it? How do you transform a skittish horse? “I started out by trusting her. Trust is a two way street: a horse will only trust you if you trust them.”
It seems like a smart teaching method to me, which proves Professor Lorini had it right about Michela, and the proof is in her school.