ELKO – From saddles to sarsaparilla, elementary school students were exposed to cowboy culture through hands-on lessons this week at the Western Folklife Center.

Of all the cultural activities, third-grader Ben Coburn said his favorite was pounding leather.

The 2015 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering prepares to kick off, so the Folklife Center opened its doors to local schools, whose students spent time at three stations during their visit.

This year, the vaqueros of Baja California Sur are featured in the Gathering’s cultural exchange program.

“It was really fun and interesting,” Ben said.

He mingled with fellow Spring Creek Elementary School students Thursday in the Wiegand Gallery.

Near the center of the exhibit room, a replica ranch kitchen with a thatched roof of weaved palm fronds invited visitors to learn about another culture that is rooted in ranching.

Fermín Reygadas-Dahl, exhibit curator, told students on an afternoon tour about vaquero-style coffee, made with a fresh squeeze of cow or goat milk.

As an anthropology professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, Raygadas-Dahl is used to an older audience. He reveled this week at the opportunity to teach young children.

“They are open; they have imagination,” he said.

Raygadas-Dahl remembered as a child experiencing the wonders found in the museums of Mexico City. At times, he said, he sneaked away from school for a visit.

“My father said one day, ‘Museums give you the opportunity to reach the knowledge without any background.’ That means that anyone who enters here, at the end he will know better than he would by reading a book about Baja California.”

Ben’s parents agreed. His mother, Amy Coburn, said the field trip opened students’ eyes to a distant culture that might be more lasting than had they only read a textbook.

Third-grader McKenzie Smith said she learned a lot.

“I liked it,” she said, adding that she would recommend the exhibit to her friends who didn’t have a chance to go with their classes.

At another station, Carla Wilson-Leff, a volunteer, told children about the ins-and-outs of horse saddles.

“We figured out a couple years ago that most kids have not interacted with a saddle,” she said. “So I started bringing mine so they could touch them.”

Each student took home a scarf, donated by Wrangler, but not before discussing the myriad ways in which it could be used.

“They get to use their brains (to think how) one little simple piece of equipment can be used for a lot of stuff,” Wilson-Leff said.

During the final activity at Wilson-Leff’s station, the children bellied up to the Pioneer Bar and took a swig of sarsaparilla.

Thumping clacks, created by a classroom of children hammering leather discs with wooden mallets, roared through doors of the adjacent G Three Bar Theater.

Jan Petersen, youth education coordinator for the Gathering, said Reygadas-Dahl was an exceptional presenter.

“We could keep the kids in here for an entire hour, easily,” she said. “… What’s great about this exhibit in particular is it’s Baja California. We have so many Spanish speakers here. It’s that cross-cultural exchange that’s great.”

Deb Howard, assistant youth coordinator, said the Folklife Center saw about 210 students come through its doors Tuesday, another 150 on Wednesday and 300 on Thursday. Teachers signed up for the field trips in advance, from schools in Elko and Spring Creek, as well as Wells and Owyhee, Howard said.

“Space is limited, so they sign up in December,” she said.

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An earlier version of this story misspelled Wrangler and indicated the incorrect Gathering year.

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