On one sunny Thursday morning in May, I found myself as a guest in a busy classroom at the Alderwood Family Development Centre, ready to accompany students to the TCF Horse Power program. As an avid horseperson myself, I had arranged with Lisa Lowe to spend some time observing Alderwood students at one of their weekly Horse Power lessons in order to learn more about this exciting program and its benefits.
Horse Power is a collaboration between the Alderwood Family Development Centre, headed by Lisa Lowe, and Town and Country Equestrian – a riding school in the horsey Southlands neighbourhood of Vancouver. It provides lessons in horse care and leadership to children between the ages of 8 and 12 who are currently attending Alderwood. Contrary to popular belief, these are not horseback riding lessons, but instead are carefullydesigned, on-the-ground exercises in a safe setting, within the specialty field of Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL).
EFL is an experiential form of therapy and learning that involves partnering with horses. As prey animals, horses are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures who respond to even the smallest details in their surroundings. It is because of this sensitivity that horses are able provide immediate feedback to their handlers and observers by reacting and responding to the human’s behaviour and emotional state, providing valuable information about the participant’s feelings, bodily tension, and way of being in a relationship. Together with the therapist and the horse, the participant can then engage in hands-on learning to explore ways of creating more self-awareness, establish healthy boundaries, and develop positive and assertive methods of communication. Other benefits of EFL include development of confidence and self-respect, empathy, selfregulation, accountability, trust, conflict resolution, leadership, teamwork, and other critical life skills.
Inside the Alderwood classroom, it was clear that the kids were more than ready for their weekly lesson, as they had already donned their boots, half-chaps, and helmets in eager anticipation! After joining in for circle, myself, three students, and one parent all piled into the van and were off to the stable, with Family and Community Worker, Rita-Ann at the helm. On our way, the children shared stories about their previous lessons, including the horses they worked with, the kinds of activities they had participated in, and some of the successes and challenges they had encountered. All three of them seemed to value and enjoy this amazing opportunity they had been given.
Upon arrival at the stable, we were greeted by Horse Power instructors Amelia and Meghan, and the students quickly got to work with their respective horse or pony. On that day, the session began with grooming the horses, where I watched each child practice ways of caring for their animal by brushing them and allowing them to graze on grass. This was followed by a walk down to the river and back, where the students led their own horse without much (if any) adult support.
Although this was my first time meeting these three children from Alderwood, and seeing Horse Power in action, I was able to witness some amazing things take place. What immediately struck me was the calmness and self-regulation the students showed when we arrived at the stable – much different from the highly-energized vibes they presented in the classroom and in the van. I was also struck by the confidence I saw in the children. Each child could have easily been overpowered by their horses and ponies , however I watched all three of them work with their animal in an assertive but respectful way when grooming, grazing and leading them. If their horse misbehaved, they practiced positive methods of communication through non-verbal body language and gentle but firm words, in order to create and maintain boundaries and keep their horses on track. At one point I even observed two students working together to lead a particularly cheeky pony down the path without allowing him to tow them off the path to eat.
I was most inspired by seeing how being with the horses seemed to allow one student to blossom: she became more talkative, stood taller, made increased eye-contact, and even allowed me to take a turn brushing her horse with her. Talking with Rita-Ann and Lisa, I learned that all of the students who have participated in the program have made great strides in their own personal development and learning, and the program has also been helpful in increasing attendance at Alderwood for some children. It is clear that Horse Power has been a valuable addition to TCF, and I hope that it will continue to grow and develop as a program, so that more children can experience its amazing effects. Thanks to the students and staff of Alderwood and Horse Power for allowing me to share in this wonderful opportunity!
Morgan Walsh, Cedarwood