RVS Learning Specialist – A person’s passions can come in many different shapes or sizes, flavors and themes. Some people love travel, others are foodies, while some feed their souls with art or music. One of my life’s passions involves a six foot tall, brown-eyed, well-muscled guy by the name of Tipper. I should clarify, however, Tipper is my horse! As someone who has always had a passion for horses, I know how wonderful they can be for the soul. So, when I heard that students in Rocky View were getting the opportunity to work with horses to build their confidence and self-awareness, I was very eager to find out more.
I had the privilege of seeing two of the programs that Rocky View students participated in this year: Spirit Winds Ranch, Equine Assisted Learning with Laurel Griffin and Whispering Equine, Equine Facilitated Wellness with Carrie Watson. Both left a lasting impression on me, and from the comments and reflections of the students participating, I could tell that our students were also powerfully impacted by the experiences.
At Spirit Winds Ranch, elementary students learned what it means to build trust and relationships through working with horses. Although I have had many personal experiences in this area, Laurel’s program opened my eyes to a whole new world of skill building. The session I observed was all about using common sense. While working with their “horse partners”, the students read a challenge aloud and then planned to lead their horse through obstacles in the safest, kindest way possible. The students were instructed to watch for their horse’s non-verbal cues: ear position, eyes, licking their lips, etc. I was amazed at the creative problem-solving skills that the students were applying as they worked through the obstacles. When the horses struggled to complete a task, the students used their newly acquired empathy skills to find out why. Every student experienced success, and you could see the sense of pride on their faces and accomplishment in their voices.
The essential life skills that were taught and reinforced during this exercise were invaluable. The students communicated verbally with their partners and volunteers, and non-verbally with their horses. They demonstrated resiliency through trying different strategies and then adjusting, based on their horses, to achieve success. They also collaborated effectively with their partners, volunteers, and horses. At the end of the session, students reflected on what resonated with them from the morning. Some of the words they chose were, “flexible, fun, creative, strong leadership, thinking, and dependability.” The self-awareness of these young students was impressive.
At Whispering Equine, high school students participated in an equally life-changing experience. In this session they started in a cozy classroom in the barn where Carrie led them through a discussion about types of stress and how people cope. The students identified experiences of their own that had caused them stress and reflected on how it made them feel, physically and emotionally. They would then discover that the day’s activity with the horses would be all about releasing that stress and tension, both their own and the horse’s, through acupressure.
After the students had time to groom and bond with their horses, they led them into an arena to start the exercise. The students were taught to recognize their horse’s energy fields and were instructed to watch for signs of physical release: chin quiver, sighing, yawning, licking their lips, head shaking, etc. Carrie talked about “offering intention” to the horse instead of just trying to do something to them. The relationship that the students had previously built with these horses was crucial, as this experience would make both the horse and the student vulnerable to one another. She instructed them to be mindful of their own body and eye positions, breath, and finger tension, all of which would communicate different messages to the animals. Each student started behind their horse’s ear and used the tips of their fingers to work along the Bladder Meridian – an important line of energy in acupressure that runs the length of the body. At a point of tension, the horse would blink, indicating a spot that required focus. Watching these students use their hands to connect with their animals was incredible. As the horses would release a spot of tension, the students would often do the same. Each was silent and intently focused on both their horse’s and their own physical and emotional sensations.
In talking to the students after the session, I discovered that mornings at Whispering Equine were often emotional. As the students worked through areas of their lives that cause them stress or anxiety, they dealt with difficult feelings in ways they would not ordinarily be able to. Other days were energetic and uplifting, leaving the students with a stronger sense of confidence and self-assurance. No matter the day’s emotional tone, the students felt they could safely connect and communicate with their animals without fear of judgment or critique. Their reflections and sense of growth through the program were both touching and inspiring. These students were unanimous in saying that this was an important and powerful experience for them.
My own lifetime of experiences with horses has taught me that they are incredibly perceptive creatures. They can read body language and sense emotions. Through seeing these students and their interactions with horses, I have come to see how valuable their intuition can be in helping humans reflect on and heal from their own emotional challenges. I only received a brief snapshot of the incredible programs that Laurel and Carrie put on, however, the impact of their work was evident. I am looking forward to seeing more students in Rocky View Schools supported through equine learning. Horses, with their beauty, empathy, and rich personalities, are powerful agents of student wellness. As a lifelong horse-lover, it moved me to see students reveal a deep connection to these magnificent creatures. In a word: unforgettable.
Rocky View Providers:
“Spirit Winds Ranch” Cochrane, AB – Laurel Griffin
“Whispering Equine” DeWinton, AB – Carrie Watson
“Inner Equine Journeys” Carseland, AB – Lori Thompson
“Equine Enrichment” Carstairs, AB – Angie Payne
“Heard Wellness Through Horses” Carstairs, AB – Amy Monea