CASPER, Wyo. — Gabriella Furgiuele almost went to Georgia State for college.

The 18-year-old Atlanta native scouted a few Catholic colleges, mostly to appease her parents.

Then she heard about Wyoming Catholic College's horsemanship program.

"This," she said recently while saddling a horse prior to the start of class, "was actually the deciding factor for me."

Wyoming Catholic College students learn about the outdoors by going backpacking, faith by studying the history of the church and Latin, and stewardship and Western culture by participating in a yearlong horsemanship class.

All freshmen are required to participate in the horsemanship program, said Mary Murray, one of the instructors. The class runs twice a week during the school year. All students also have the opportunity to ride twice a month on weekends.

The program falls into the college's mission to teach "the whole person," Murray said.

It promotes physical fitness and spending time outdoors, but also teaches patience, responsibility and courage. Some students, such as Trey Pierre, 19, had never been near a horse before.

"I thought it was awesome," the Nebraska native said. "You can't get this experience anywhere else."

The college, including the horsemanship program, appealed to him because of its aim to create well-rounded students.

"I just wanted to become a better person," Pierre said.

Learning to ride was scary at first, but he's developed the ability to face his fears and to use problem-solving skills. Pierre's also learned how to better communicate with the animals.

"I have no idea if I'll ride again (when the academic year ends)," he said. "It's not in my skill set — well yet. It will be."

Students start with the basics, including riding the horses bareback. Throughout the year, they learn to care for horses, ride Western style, jump and move cattle. By year's end, the students have enough skills to work at a ranch or own a horse one day, Murray said.

The program also teaches students about Wyoming's Western culture, said Pat Trautman, the other instructor. Students develop such rodeo and ranch skills as pole bending and cutting along with such practical skills as trail riding.

The class gives students a better understanding of the natural world, she said.

"I think it should be a requirement for being a human being," said Matthew Gaddis, 20, of Casper.

Gaddis had been around horses and ridden a little while growing up in Wyoming. However, the class took his knowledge beyond how to stay in the saddle. He learned about caring for an animal and taking responsibility for something other than himself.

This semester, Gaddis isn't riding because of a back injury. On a recent afternoon, he watched the students work cattle at the far end of the pen at the Lander rodeo arena, wishing he could participate.

The students worked to separate the cattle and move them across the pen. A few broke free and darted back to the herd. The students reorganized to try again, clicking at their horses to put them in position.

Furgiuele took the lead, pointing to a steer moving to one side.

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Furgiuele came into the program with riding experience. She's since found herself in a leadership role, developing the ability to offer help to others and to provide directions.

She has developed trust in horses and in herself.

"Working with a horse is a stress reliever," she said.

Horses can sense emotions, Furgiuele said. Before getting in the saddle she tries to let go of things bothering her and to turn her focus toward the horse. Whatever she can't quite release eases when she's riding. The horse, she said, helps carry her burden.

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune,