What do you get if you take three Shetland ponies and team them with six disaffected pupils? The answer, surprisingly, isn't chaos and a call to the RSPCA. In fact, working with horses has been shown to benefit children, particularly those who have learning or behavioural difficulties.
One example of equine-assisted learning in a "real-life" setting involved children at a school in South Warwickshire who had been identified as having behavioural issues. First, the children worked together to create an obstacle course; then they had to lead the Shetland ponies around it safely.
The outcome? According to those involved, the children saw first-hand the benefit of teamwork, understood their place within that team and began to develop an understanding of non-verbal communication. Let's face it: Shetland ponies aren't the most enormous of beasts, but if one decides it's not going somewhere, it would take more than a group of adolescents to change its mind.
Why little pony?
As well as developing skills in teamwork, working with horses can build children's self-esteem, according to Nicola Hepburn, director of Equine Learning. They realise that they do have the ability to work with such a large animal and build a relationship with it. The children learn equine behaviour, body language, communication and sometimes riding.
Another example of the effectiveness of equine-assisted learning in supporting children with special educational needs is the Horse Boy programme, which has been shown to benefit children who have autism (see bit.lyequine-learning). In this programme, children ride a horse accompanied by an adult; the hip movement when cantering is thought to facilitate the release of the calming oxytocin hormone, and the experience of riding can create the ideal forum for non-threatening discussion and learning.
In addition, Hepburn says, equine-assisted learning can help with a wide range of conditions, from emotional disorders and depression to learning difficulties and sensory impairment.
Children from homes where there is a lot of shouting can learn the benefit of talking and using a softer tone; those who find it difficult to follow instructions can groom instinctively and gradually get used to taking advice on how to carry this out more effectively. Children with low confidence or who have suffered trauma can reap the reward of developing a relationship with a large, gentle animal, which can help them to open up to an accompanying therapist.
Working with horses places children in a situation in which they are forced to think laterally. They are confronted with issues and situations they have not previously encountered and have no preconceptions about; they are encouraged to reconsider their habitual behaviour and adapt their words and actions with care and understanding.
Gillian Harvey is a teacher in France
10 ways to learn with animals
1 Super safari
Task pupils with describing and discussing a Kenyan animal of their choice using this worksheet on adjectives.
2 Further farm fun
Try these activities to make sure your trip to the farm is full of learning opportunities.
3 Welfare worries
A lesson plan designed by the RSPCA will help you to stage a debate on animal welfare.
4 Risky business
Use this model risk assessment as a starting point when planning a trip to a local farm.
5 Ahead of the game
This complete set of resources will come in handy when you're planning a farm-animal topic for your class.
6 Vet rescue
Turn your classroom into a veterinary surgery by constructing a role-play area for pupils. Let them explore issues of empathy and compassion.
7 Peternal instinct
Teach children about caring for animals, and explore issues concerning their housing, welfare and nutrition.
8 Perfect pets
Introduce different animals and their characteristics to younger children and discuss what makes a good pet.
9 Cautionary tails
This video highlights hazards and ways to stay safe during a class trip to a farm.
10 From cow to carton
Growing Schools has shared a complete set of resources showing children where meat, milk and leather come from.