Working with Horses in an Integrated Thinking Space

Yellowwoods school equine therapy

It’s the soft skills that really matter. Education is as much socio-emotional as it is it academic-intellectual. Imagine going to school where this philosophy is a reality. Yellowwoods Preparatory School is a co-educational school from nursery (age two) through to Grade 7. The campus is situated midway between Adelaide and Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape.

Yellowwoods is known as an ‘educational oasis’, which offers children unique learning opportunities in not only a secure, happy and caring environment, but also a countryside surrounded by trees, dams and farms. We are privileged to be able to keep four horses on the property.

Equine therapy is well known as an excellent vehicle for the development and healing of the soft skills. In fact, it is the prosocial skills of emotional awareness, impulse control, self-regulation, empathy and self-confidence that, if well developed in the early years, impact both the academic and quality of life performance in adults.

We have four horses at our school. Storm is sensitive and kind, Basil solid and gentle, Barabaz a bit of a loner, and Bobby is the relaxed, fun-loving member of the group.

Since taking over as head of Yellowwoods this year, I have been blessed with an amazing opportunity to re-imagine this unique learning space with the help of my wonderful team of teachers, administration and maintenance staff.

After being in education for 30 years, I am so grateful to have this leadership position where we can make a difference in children’s lives and break away from the traditional teaching philosophy where pressure, anxiety, homework, tests, marks and judgement are regular practices.

Imagine a school where children are excited to think deeply. In order to achieve this environment, we use our horses to help all our children, especially those who do not feel safe, or lack a sense of belonging in their communities. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are very real and many children are feeling overwhelmed and traumatised.

Emotionally, they are struggling with many situations in their personal lives, and it is hard for them to come to school happy and ready to learn. With the political, social and environmental volatility in the world, now more than ever, we need to help our children by creating these educational spaces that address the current and relevant needs of students.

Learn from a horse

Keller Education

We are excited to have partnered with Keller Education, an organisation that believes that the why and how of teaching is as important as the what. Keller Education does not interfere with a school’s curriculum structure but focuses rather on improving the professional capital of the organisation. Professional capital is a function of human capital (staff capacity) x social capital (staff well-being) x decisional capital (choices we make in leading and managing the school).

If any one of those functions is zero, the professional capital of the organisation is zero. Keller Education teachers educators about the power of human connection that literally turns on the brain; how to interact with students and peers; how to deliver engaging, relevant and meaningful content; and how to create a safe, loving environment where students have sense of belonging and therefore, thrive. Thriving students are able to access their pre-frontal cortex for deep thinking.

How to learn from a horse

The horses teach us all to slow down in a world that pushes us to move as fast as possible and expects instant gratification. You cannot rush a horse. They do not understand the words, ‘Hurry up!’ They do not respond well to harsh words or fear. The only way to understand horses is to slow down and to learn to listen.

Spending time with our horses gives our children the opportunity to relax and do things at a slower pace. Horses communicate largely through a discernible and predictable body language to communicate, set boundaries, show fear, express annoyance, relaxation and affection. The relationship between a child and a horse means that the former can break through communication barriers that teachers and parents are often not able to.

Psychologically, horses respond to children’s emotions in different ways, helping them feel their emotions and see how their behaviour and emotions affect others. When one is feeling down, spending a while with one of the horses is therapy for both the soul and the body.

We are also finding that more children are coming to school with weak core strength and experience difficulties with balance and co-ordination. These weaknesses are exacerbated by too much screen time, and too little free play outside. Since working with horses outdoors are using their fine and gross motor skills, it is positively benefiting them physically as well as emotionally and socially.

Horses at Yellowwoods Preparatory School

Special relationships

The children are loving this opportunity to work with horses and spending time outdoors during their school day. Some of them have initially been a little nervous and it will take time to overcome these barriers by developing trust and respect for the animals with whom they interact. This curriculum ‘addon’ creates a learning experience which will teach the children key life skills.

We know that all the children will soon become more comfortable around the horses and they will start to develop special relationships with them. They will learn to accept responsibility and become more aware of their own behaviour and how it affects those who are around them. They will realise that, like people, a horse has boundaries, and one needs to respect their space. By observing the body language of the horses and communicating with them, they will be able to form a mutual trust and connection.

Whilst some classes are working with the horses, the other children work together to solve problems and set goals which will enhance their problem-solving and team-work abilities. When learners can achieve their goals and overcome their feelings of self-doubt and fear, they develop motivation to do anything that life throws at them, which is what our ‘Working with Horses’ programme aims to do.

In his book, The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts says, ‘A good trainer can get a horse to do almost anything. The great trainer can cause the horse to want to do it.’ ‘Great’ teaching and ‘great’ learning is happening at Yellowwoods!