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Promoting Student Social-Emotional Development with Equine-Assisted Learning

During the 2017-18 school year, Hoosick Falls Central School District (HFCSS) started offering high school students the unique opportunity to visit a local horse farm for Hoosick Equine Connections, an equine-assisted learning program. There, students interact and connect with horses with the assistance of equine specialists.

“Horses are very intuitive animals,” said Equine Specialist Janet Botaish. “They live in the moment. I think that everybody, including the students who come here, need a moment to connect and that happens with a horse.”

Students are referred to the program by the school’s counselors and teachers. They typically visit the farm once a week for a six-week session. Once at the program, the students do not ride the horses, but remain on the ground. They halter, groom, and walk the horses, lead them through activities in the arena, or freely interact with them.

“Our students are working on building connections with this amazing animal which picks up on what a student needs without them saying anything,” said HFCSD School Psychologist Corie Rushman.

“Talking about something that’s on their mind can be a little intense for a teenager. With the horses, the students have the chance to work through some things without it being so intense or scary.”

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International defines Equine-Assisted Learning as “an experiential learning approach that promotes the development of life skills … through equine-assisted activities.” As noted by Hippocrates, horses have been placed in a therapeutic role since the time of the ancient Greeks. There is mention in literature of horses being used to therapeutically assist people in Europe and North America since the seventeenth century.

The experience for each student in the program is different and depends largely on that particular student’s needs. The trip to the farm, about six miles from the school, allows them to have a break from their everyday lives.

“What’s really great about horses,” said Rushman, “is that they’re able to communicate using non-verbal methods.”

Horses are animals which, in the wild, have to be constantly aware of their surroundings for their own protection. In the ring with the students, the horses are incredibly attuned to what is going on around them. The way the horses interact with the students and each other helps the students become more aware of their own actions and their feelings behind them.

The horses are non-invasive and accepting. The students don’t have to talk about things or explain themselves, they can just be who they are, in that moment, with no judgement. If they do wish to verbalize what they are going through, students often safely do so through the metaphor of their interaction with the horse.

“One of our long-term goals,” said Rushman, “is to be able to connect those experiences and those metaphors the students experience at the farm with their everyday lives.”

There is also a sense of empowerment and increased self-confidence for many of the students in the program.

“There’s really big shifts that happen. When a student realizes she can lead a 1,000-pound animal with some simple but assertive actions,” said Botaish, “that can be life-changing for them.”

The Equine Connections Program is working towards being an evidence-based model. The school has been collecting data on the participant’s attendance at the sessions and in school, their grades, and disciplinary referrals. So far, the results are very promising, as the students who participated in the program during the first year improved in all of those areas.

“While math, English and writing are all important,” said Rushman, “I think preparing our students to function in society is just as critical for their future success.”