A student interacts with Patches, one of the the mini's that help children learn to better interact with others by experiencing the horses' reactions to their behavior. The program, started by former jockey turned guidance counsellor, is part of Oxford (PA) Area School District's Extended School Year program.
Children who have difficulty with social skills are learning more this summer with the help of horses. Special needs students in the Oxford (PA) Area School District taking part in the Extended School Year (ESY) Program had the opportunity to take their classes to a nearby stable where a trio of miniature horses helped them learn more about how to relate to other people.
Former jockey Kate Black is now a middle school guidance counselor in the Oxford Area School district, and certified in equine assisted psychotherapy since 2007. She proposed the equine therapy class to the school district and offered her own skills and her farm as the site. Black’s mother Penny Lawhorne is also a licensed consoler and able to help facilitate the classes.
“Over an extended time (summer vacation) they regress educationally. When we get them back in September it may take us three or four months to get them back to where they were - that ends up being an issue,” Jenny Le Sage, Director of Special Education at Oxford, explained the need for the ESY program. “Also some particular abilities really lend themselves to educating the child on a regular basis.
“A lot of them don’t like school to begin with and then I say you have to come back for extended school,” said Le Sage, pointing out that the program is particularly appropriate for children with autism and intellectual disabilities as well as social or emotional issues, or those that have a hard time with communication. “This is fun, and they’re learning. That’s important to me that the kids are having a good time and learning what they need to learn.”
There were 37 students in kindergarten through high school that qualified for the ESY program at Oxford this year. During their half-day summer classes, students in the ESY program added once a week visits to the horses at Black’s farm to their classroom work. Each small class was shuttled from the school to the farm in turn for a class working with three miniature horses.
Unlike therapeutic riding programs, this equine therapy program uses the horses to help the students express themselves. Interacting with the horses is similar to interacting with other people, except that the horses are very clear in the way they express themselves.
The horses are allowed to react as they normally would while loose in their paddock. If a child runs up to a horse instead of approaching calmly, the horse naturally runs away. The horses will retreat from anyone who is loud or rough, so the children learn quickly that they need to be calm and respectful.
Where a therapy dog might be overly tolerant of a child’s behavior, the horses react more. “The goal of this type of work is to let the horses be as natural as possible,” Black said. “We want them to see that their behavior has consequences.”
“They all want to be around the animals so they had to start realizing how they had to act to make that happen,” Le Sage said. Learning to pick up on non-verbal signals is a skill that comes naturally to most people, but may be a challenge to a special needs student. “Most of our communication is through body language, we speak but people look at how we look. That’s how they know how we’re feeling.”
Simply being with the horses seems to help some children emotionally, but the classes go far beyond that. One example is a lesson about feelings. The teacher talks with the class about all kinds of feelings that are listed on a whiteboard. The same feelings are written on balls scattered around the paddock. Each child in turn gets a chance to put a lead line on the horse of their choice, lead it to a ball that they pick up and bring back to the group. The student then tells if they have felt that way and when, plus they speculate as to whether the horse ever feels that way and why.
When the students go back to their classrooms they continue to talk about the same themes and their experiences at the barn. “It can be done in a much less detailed way with the little guys and go into much more depth with the older ones,” Black said.
Other lessons with the horses are geared to the level of the student’s abilities. Some begin by being very frightened of the horses, and reluctant to interact. Getting over that hesitation with the horses helps some students open up in ways that they otherwise will not.
Black acquired the three miniatures just for this program. Mister Patches, a buckskin, is the oldest of the trio at 20. Sadie, a ten year old bay, and Colleen, a six year old paint, are, like Mister Patches, calm, patient horses that are happy to work with the children. “I picked Sadie specifically because she had a long background with Amish children and I knew she would be friendly. Mister Patches is my calm sweet nice man so I have three different personalities,” Black said.
Also at the farm is Black’s crossbred gelding Hans. Because of his size he is not used with the young children. “He’s great, typically for teenagers that have issues of their own where maybe they need to be reined in a little bit,” Black said. “They can work out their own boundary issues because he has his own boundary issues. They can learn to stand up for themselves in a socially acceptable way.”
Located about a mile from the campus, Black’s Teckel Hollow Farm is ideal for the classes. Oxford is in a still rural portion of Chester County, and Amish buggies are a daily sight, but as development has come to the area, fewer and fewer children have a farm background or experience with horses.
With recent cuts to state funding and a very tight budget to meet, school districts are looking for programs that are effective without being expensive. Oxford was receptive to Black’s proposal as they look for new creative options for programming that can be offered at a lower cost. “I did know Dr. Fischer (district superintendent) had a background with horses, so I thought with the right group of people we could make this happen,” Black said.
Surrounding school districts are taking a look at the equine therapy class in action with the idea of including it in their own curriculum.