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School pilot project combines horses with therapy

By: Allison Chorney

  |  Posted: Monday, Nov 18, 2013 11:13 am

The new equine assisted therapy pilot project uses the body language of horses to help teach relationship  building and communication skills to students at Chestermere High School.
The new equine assisted therapy pilot project uses the body language of horses to help teach relationship building and communication skills to students at Chestermere High School.
Kristen Spruit/Rocky View Publishing

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Many pet owners and animal lovers know the feeling of coming home to an excited dog or cat and having the stress of the day seemingly melt away. They may not be able to explain why having an animal in their life has this impact on them, but pet lovers around the world swear by the positive affects of animals.

Chestermere High School is building off that feeling with their new six-week pilot project that relies on the assistance of horses to help build relationships and communication skills in students with behavioural, social and emotional issues.

“It’s really emotional because you are interacting with these animals and you really connect with them,” said Jane, a Grade 11 student involved in the program whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.

The program is in its third week and came about when school principal Jordan Fenton visited the Westwind Rodeo Academy in Cardston, Alta., where they have a similar program.

“It was displayed to me that equine therapy was an emerging way to meet the needs of students with behavioural, social and emotional needs,” Fenton said.

The program follows the EAGALA Model, which does not involve horseback riding but rather focuses on effective and deliberate techniques that utilizes the horses as metaphors for specific experiences and issues students may face. The model is facilitated by both a mental health professional and an equine specialist.

A mental health professional is responsible for treatment planning and the program builds on the metaphoric and therapeutic relevance of the session in the form of discussion with students after an activity.

The equine specialist is there to maintain the safety of both horse and students and to observe the horse to help bring forward behaviours, which can be used in potential metaphors.

Jane said the program has helped her develop trust and self-confidence.

“The horses can’t speak to you but you can tell by their body language how connected they are to you,” she said.

She added, through the program she has learned body language in people is similar to that of the horses because sometime people can use their non-verbal language to display how they are feeling and if they want to be approached.

“If the horse is backing away or lowering down, it means they are feeling threatened, so you have to learn to read their body language,” she said. “You have to learn to trust them and go off their body language to tell how they are feeling.”

She said the equine-assisted therapy also helps her understand and cope with her own emotions.

“If you’re really sad and your emotion is coming off like that, the horses can tell and you have to work to change your mood. That’s something I didn’t really think about with people,” she said.

Fenton said horses make a great assistant animal in this type of therapy because they are prey animals, meaning they are aware of what is happening around them and have been known to mirror the emotions of the people working with them.

“Research into human-animal bond has exhibited the power of attachment between the human and animal and how it can aid in interactions between humans,” he said.

Lori Thompson, owner of Inner Equine Journeys Growth & Development Center and mental health professional for the Chestermere program said the horses are very important in the therapy.

“They do the work. We can bring a topic in and discuss it but the students see what we are discussing with the horses. The horses bring the topic to life,” she said.

Fenton said the pilot program has more than 10 students involved and the weekly one-hour sessions are offered as either a group or individual session, depending on the students’ needs.

“A typical session starts with a goal in mind, for example enhancing communication, and follows with an activity that is based around that goal that involves interaction with the horses. At the conclusion of the activity there is a discussion surrounding the activity and concept that was being highlighted,” he said.

Jane said one of the activities with the goal of enhancing communication was working with a partner and using only non-verbal communication to get the horse to move forward and put a hoof in a hula-hoop. After the activity, the group talked about how body language can be used effectively.

“It feels pretty good when I leave a session because I’ve accomplished something I didn’t think I could,” Jane said.

She said she enjoys the program and would like to continue it, but is happy it is only once a week because at the end of each session, students are given a lot to think about in terms of what they learned and how they can incorporate the learning into dealing with their own emotions and stress.

“I feel I am on my way to making better connections,” Jane said of the difference the program has made in her life.

Fenton said the pilot program is aimed at helping students in the Chestermere area but hopes it will be developed into a model that can be duplicated and used to assist students in other areas.

“If it works for kids in the Chestermere area why couldn’t it work for kids in the Airdrie area or other areas in the county?” he said.

The school is using a neighbouring riding arena to hold the sessions.

“The response has been extremely positive by the individuals involved and we have seen growth in confidence with those that have been involved,” he said. “We are excited about the opportunity and possibilities that this pilot may bring for our students.

For more information on the EAGALA Model and to find a program near you, visit www.eagala.org/Canada


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