Roby Burch's predawn ride to school takes him on a winding route through quiet streets with silhouetted mansions. Bicyclists with blinking lights turn their heads, startled at the sight; drivers slow down for a better look; and some people come out of their houses to take his picture.
It's not often you see a kid riding his horse to school on the Main Line.
Burch, a sophomore at the Haverford School, has been riding Jet, his big white Percheron, four miles to and from school since early this month. In his blue blazer and tie, jeans, boots, and spurs, he's an urban cowboy who's bringing the flavor - and aroma - of the West to the elite private school.
"It's a nice way to start the day," he says as he saddles up the 12-year-old gelding in a stable at his family's Gladwyne estate. It's 6 a.m., hours before the school bell rings.
The idea was his dad's, Burch says, hatched this summer while the family was vacationing at its cattle ranch in Montana.
The two were joking about how parents like to tell their children how hard they had it growing up.
"My dad just said, 'Roby, you should ride your horse to school every day,' " says Burch, a fair-haired 16-year-old with the grit and politeness of a ranch hand.
Burch, who began riding at age 4 and loves horses more than anything, thought it a great idea, especially since his sisters, who used to drive him to school, are now at college. So when they got back home, he appealed to headmaster Joe Cox.
With liability such a worry that some schools don't allow tag at recess, cupcakes at parties, or parents into buildings without background checks, you'd think Cox might recoil at such an unconventional idea.
The headmaster admits his first thoughts were: Is this legal? And where are you going to put the horse? The answer to the first was yes and to the second, well, Burch already had a place in mind - a plot of land right next to the headmaster's house.
"My wife's not too excited about it," Cox says, noting the increased dust and earthy smells.
But after getting the green light, Burch helped build a corral next to the house, across the street from the school's athletic fields.
Cox thinks it's great that Burch is sharing his passion for horses with the rest of the students. They've certainly taken notice. In a recent speech, the student body president said he had just gotten his first car, a 2002 PT Cruiser, a model associated with soccer moms.
"It could be worse," he joked. "I could have a horse."
To find the best route to school, Burch and his dad trotted along narrow backstreets, his father on Jet and Roby on a smaller brown pony. But they soon realized that Roby would be safer on the Hummer-size Jet, who came from Lancaster, where he was used to traffic.
After Jet is saddled up, Burch dons a heavy work jacket and hard hat, and slings on his backpack before mounting. Then they trot off into the inky darkness.
"Careful," his mother, Susan, calls off.
His father, Bob, who works in real estate and venture capital, says Roby is an excellent horseman who can take care of himself. But his mother - well, she's a mother, so she worries.
"I always have my heart in my throat when he leaves," she says, adding that friends in the neighborhood call or e-mail her as Roby passes their houses.
The roads are mostly empty this time of morning. A group of cyclists calls out, "Horse, horse," to those in the back. "You don't see that every day," says one.
Horse and rider walk through Gladwyne's sleepy village, but when they get to Gladwyne Elementary School, Burch nudges Jet into a canter across the front lawn. Old Gulph Road is busy, but it's light out now as they carefully cross at a fast trot.
They pass a stream, a house with an airplane on the front lawn, and a woman in her robe who snaps their picture.
"What's that about?" she asks.
At Montgomery Avenue, they wait for a break in cars to cross as someone shouts a hello. "Hello, how are you?" Burch calls back.
Then Jet clip-clops on a sidewalk toward Lancaster Avenue. A quick sprint across the street and they're at school at 6:45 a.m. Burch steers Jet toward his corral at the back of the campus.
He unsaddles his mount, gives him hay and a bucket of sweet grain, and checks his water. And who cleans up the manure?
"That'd be me," says Burch, who spreads it out at the back of the corral.
A quick change into a pair of khakis and shoes that he keeps in a garage and he's ready for school.
So far, Jet has been a gentle giant, even when chaos is erupting around him. One day there was a car accident in front of the school with five flashing police cars.
"He rode right through it," Burch says proudly.
Riding is part of the Burch family DNA. Bob Burch grew up in Wayne but worked on a Montana ranch when he was 17. Susan was an equestrian. Roby's older sisters ride. His 10-week-old baby brother, well, give him time.
Burch says the first time he sat on a horse as a 4-year-old he was afraid, but now "it's what I do best."
It's no surprise that he wants to be a cowboy when he grows up.
Last summer, he worked as a ranch hand at a neighboring spread, doing chores such as building water tanks, roping cows, and cutting hay. For his 14th birthday, he got his own palomino quarter horse, which lives in Montana.
"We have a connection, a bond, just like I now have with Jet. He trusts me," Burch says.
Jet is a big hit with Haverford's younger students, who stop by to feed him carrots. Burch's friends think his four-legged ride is cool, even if they're tooling around in spiffy cars, and sometimes kid him that he smells.
"It's no mystery why," he says.
For the return trip, Burch leaves after football practice at 5:45 p.m. so he's not traveling in the dark. Even when the days grow shorter and colder, he plans to ride Jet.
"Most kids my age are trying to prove their toughness on the football field," he says. "I'm riding my horse in 30-degree weather."
It's a guy thing.
And here's another. When he turns 17, he hopes to trade in Jet for a different sort of ride.
"I want a truck," he says.