Original Publish Date October 2015.
The Schools of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, are independent, Catholic, college preparatory institutions which educate girls and boys from Pre-K 3 through Grade 12. Although girls and boys share the campus, The Academy of the Sacred Heart is the original, all-girls school founded in 1821, and Berchmans Academy of the Sacred Heart just graduated its first class of young men. All girls and boys are welcome to apply, no matter what their religion, race, or nationality might be.
There are approximately 150 Schools of the Sacred Heart in 40 countries around the world. The schools were all started by The Society of the Sacred Heart, a religious order founded in France in 1800 that has among its missions the education of youth and religious retreats. The Grand Coteau institution is the second-oldest Sacred Heart school in the United States, and the longest continually-operating Sacred Heart school in the world.
The 250-acre campus, with its historic buildings, lush trees, and generous fields, is a lovely setting for educational pursuits and a perfect setting for a riding program. Under the guidance of five instructors, students not only enjoy recreational riding, but also compete locally and nationally in Western and English disciplines. Riders may use school horses or bring their own.
The equestrian program of the Schools of the Sacred Heart teaches more than how to win a ribbon: besides learning Western and English horsemanship, the students learn the “life lessons” of “responsibility, discipline, compassion, self-confidence, and adaptability.”
Sister Lucie Nordmann, head of Institutional Advancement
The equestrian program is unique to this wonderful school. The order is run by what we call a Superior General, a nun in charge of all the Sacred Heart schools around the world. One of our Superior Generals, Janet Erskine Stuart, lived and worked on a farm with her family. She was an avid, passionate rider. We just celebrated the 100 years since her death this past January. She is a wonderful model. The value she put on riding, among other things, was the development of character. Character development has always been a very important part of our education. It’s not just about educating the head. And one of our stated goals is teaching our students to take care of creation.
I have ridden a horse only once in my life, but to watch the students with them, I must say you know those horses are relating intuitively to those children riding them. It’s phenomenal. I’ve done reading and watched videos on the therapeutic value of children relating to horses.
Alyson Pharr, mother of student Olivia Pharr
My father put me on a horse when I was five years old and I grew up loving it. I did hunter-jumper, just like Olivia is doing now. That’s how we got involved in the program. When Olivia started riding here I asked the director at the time, about five years ago, for her wish list for improving the program and getting more shows here. The simple answer was that we needed an indoor riding arena! So we started down that road.
At the same time there was a fundraising campaign for the boys school. We really didn’t want to interfere with that, so there were two separate missions, so to speak. This area, near Carencro, has a lot of horse farms and people with equestrian background. My husband and I started raising money around here with the goal of collecting about half a million dollars.
The indoor arena is going to be 148 by 210. The long side will be new stalls, tack rooms, wash racks and that sort of thing. And then the arena itself is 100 x 200. We had to add 10 feet on each end because of the beams. We used straight beams. When you build a steel building you can either used the curved or the straight, but even with the straight they take up about 2 or 3 ft on each side and we wanted the riding surface to actually be 100 by 200. We needed enough room to have regulation hunters and jumpers and do a lot of Western activity.
We have two outdoor sand arenas, newly built. One, which we call the Western arena, is 100 by 200. The other arena is 120 by 240.
We are in the process of trying to lease more land next to the school. Our long-term plan is to be a full service facility for hunter-jumper, dressage, eventing, and all the Western activities. It’s been a slow process but we are steadily moving forward.
One thing we love about this program is that when the students show up to ride, they take care of the horses themselves. Another thing is that this program is really the only school-based interscholastic riding program on our part of the Gulf Coast.
When we started the project on the arenas, I started an account for people to donate and we were trying to think of what to name the account. We came up with “Live, Ride, Learn.” Sacred Heart is the only place I know where you can live—we have a boarding school—you can ride, and you can learn.
We’ve seen a difference in Olivia. We had some significant things happen in our family—the death of my husband’s mother and then the death of my father back-to-back, and then I was in an accident right after that. It affected Olivia greatly and the one thing that seemed to calm her and give her peace of mind was riding. It just gave her so much confidence and we started to see her smile again.
After school is when I get to spend time with my horse-related friends. You go to the barn and change, get your horse ready, and if you don’t have a lesson after school you have free time to ride with your friends. We have teachers out there who watch and care for us, even if we aren’t being technically supervised. We are so lucky to have these great people who help us and teach us and comfort us in our riding. It’s a community-building process.
My dad knows a little about horses. At one point he tried riding, but it didn’t work out.
He couldn’t quite get the posting going.
By always being at horse shows and watching he understands more. Now it’s not so hard to talk to my dad about riding!
It’s been an incredible journey for our entire family. I think riding teaches a great deal about responsibility. The horses aren’t just pleasure horses, they are athletes. You have to treat them as such. It’s a great learning experience. It was for me when I was younger, and I think it has been for Olivia.
Morgyn Roberts, Director of Schools of the Sacred Heart Equestrian Center
I grew up showing 4-H in Indianapolis, Indiana. I rode competitively in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association in Western Horsemanship and Reining, and I also competed in barrels. [Morgyn graduated from St Mary-of-the-Woods College with a Bachelor’s degree in Equine Business Management and minors in Business Management and Equine Science. She received a Master’s degree in non-profit organizational leadership from the same school.] After college I worked at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, in the foal NICU. It was a wonderful experience. I didn’t want to be a vet, but the experience I got there has been very helpful to me, especially here where I manage a herd of 50 horses. I also showed Saddlebreds and I did some hunter-jumper, so I’m able to relate to what the students are going through.
I’m excited about getting back into competitive barrel racing. My new barrel horse is Tally, short for Phrosted Talent. She’s a little bay mare, about 15 hands. She’s petite. She’s a finished barrel horse. At the end of the day I can go ride her and relax. It’s wonderful.
Our herd at school is a little mix of everything…mostly Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and warmbloods. Our ponies are pretty much Welsh ponies. We have two school horses that are Arabians. At the moment, we have about thirteen school horses. The rest are either owned by the students or belong to outside boarders.
We really like to stress the safety of our students as well as the safety of our horses. Anyone under the age of 18 is required by our insurance to wear a helmet. I ask all of our instructors or anyone who is riding to wear a helmet just to set an example for the children. When we go off the school property to a show like a barrel racing show, that’s a parental decision. Actually, in AQHA events anyone under the age of 18 is required to wear a helmet. We’re moving towards greater awareness, but it’s going to be hard with the rodeo crowd. Fallon Taylor is a professional barrel racer who rode in a helmet in every round at the National Finals Rodeo. She’s trying to set an example. She and the AQHA have teamed up to start pushing awareness.
It is very difficult to have a program that teaches everything from Western Pleasure to Horsemanship to barrels. Fortunately, we have enough staff members and we’ve all done a little bit of each so that we can cater to whatever the student wants to do.
The equestrian program is considered a sport, so when the students go to a show it’s like the track team going to a meet. It’s always excused. A lot of schools won’t do that for their riders.
We encourage the teachers to go out to the arenas and watch, so they know what the students are doing and see that it’s not all fun and games, but a lot of work. It’s been very educational for the teachers! And also for administrative personnel, who see what it is that they’re paying all these bills for.
The staff, we love this place. It’s a sanctuary for us to be here. We love being around the kids and the horses every day. For me, growing up with horses, I don’t know life any other way. So having the girls and boys come to the barn and being able to teach them and seeing them grow up at the barn, it’s wonderful. And hearing what Olivia has to say about it brings tears to my eyes, because we really never get to hear that, we just kind of watch as they grow and see all the skills that they are learning. All of my staff grew up with horses and we are all very passionate about what we do and we love it here. The parents are passionate. The students are passionate. It’s just a wonderful place.
[Sydney, an 8th grade student, keeps her own horse at Sacred Heart. He’s a big bay warmblood from Argentina.] Falco and I do the children’s hunters. That’s like 3 feet to 3 feet 3 inches. It’s really fun.
Olivia and I go to shows in Texas and Florida and Alabama. Skipping school to go to shows is fun! We make sure, though, to get our homework done. It puts us in a bad spot if we aren’t responsible.
The show that most impresses me is the Pin Oak Charity Show in Katy, Texas. It’s a two week show, and a whole bunch of different trainers come. I show in Open classes, so I can be riding in classes with professionals and really well known riders. It’s awesome to see them in person and to ride with them.
I know that I want to continue in the riding business. I’d like to go up to the Northeast where all the big riding schools are and major in business, so that I can start my own business buying and selling horses for the hunter-jumper circuit.
Jessica Culligan, mother of Sydney
The riding program has been a blessing. Sydney broke her foot two weeks after we shipped Falco down here. She couldn’t come out to the barn and she couldn’t ride. We didn’t know what was wrong with her; she was just kind of down and not her outgoing, bubbly self. The minute she was able to come back to the barn, my husband called me and said, ‘She hasn’t stopped singing since I’ve picked her up!’ It’s just something in her blood.
[Sophie is a 10th grade student.] I don’t have my own horse. I ride the school horses. It’s great not knowing who I’m going to ride that day!
My favorite horse is Apache. He’s an Appaloosa, and he’s everybody’s favorite horse. He’s a little lazy, but he’s so well mannered. There’s another horse, a Thoroughbred named T. C.—when he came here he had some problems adjusting, so he was really cranky. I was one of the main people to ride him, so I would come to the barn on free time and take care of him as if he was my own. So he is pretty up there as one of my favorites, just because of the bond.
I compete in hunters and equitation on the flat and over fences. I enjoy the Halloween “B” show in Folsom. They decorate the jumps with little witch hats and pumpkins, and there’s a “decorate your horse” competition that’s fun to watch.
I was born in California so I’ve always really wanted to go back. My dad went to Pepperdine in Malibu and they have an amazing pre-med and pre-vet program. So I haven’t decided what I want to do yet, but helping people at school and helping animals at the barn has really become a big part of my life, so those programs are definitely something I want to pursue.
[Ari is a senior and plans to go to LSU.] My horse’s name is Moose. He’s pretty large—16.2 hands. He’s a chestnut Quarter Horse. He has a big butt.
I do Western Pleasure and Horsemanship with him. He can be lazy. I did go over a diagonal once with him, and it was pretty insane. He likes to hop over like a deer. It’s really cute but scary.
We go to shows at the SugArena in New Iberia. The show that affected me the most was one I brought Moose to when I hadn’t ridden him in a while. We didn’t place well—I think we got 6th—but it was all adults and I was proud of Moose for behaving.
I’ll be majoring in Animal Science. I think the Sacred Heart Equestrian Center has a lot to do with what made me make that decision. It’s made me really respect animals and nature and life. Being a veterinarian is my dream.
All of the world’s Schools of the Sacred Heart instill in their students the Five Goals:
- A Personal and Active Faith in God
- A Deep Respect for Intellectual Values
- The Building of Community as a Christian Value
- A Social Awareness that Impels to Action
- Personal Growth in an Atmosphere of Wise Freedom
The Schools of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, have succeeded in uniting the Five Goals with their equestrian program. The students respect the discipline of riding, enjoy the friendship of the barn, and care deeply for their comrades, both human and equine. They see horses as God’s creatures.