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Using horse power to teach communication skills

Little Oasis program helps families, individuals, and businesses learn to talk- and listen
Schools, business, government agencies and individuals have accessed Little Oasis’ program.

Abby McLean tugs on the brown horses’ lead, encouraging the animal to move.

“Please Betty. Please Betty. Please Betty,” says the Seven Summits Centre for Learning student. Her partner in the exercise, Malia Johnston, is saying the same thing at the back, pushing Betty’s hindquarters, trying to get a response.

Betty’s not moving.

A trio of boys aren’t having much luck either - the horse ignoring their different prods and exhortations to follow them.

It’s all a little amusing for Leah Hope, watching the students struggle to get the horses to co-operate. But she doesn’t make a move to intervene.

“What we do is allow it to happen, and let them figure it out,” says the owner of Little Oasis Equine-Assisted Learning. “And they are going to remember that way more than us interfering.”

Earlier in the afternoon, the dozen students from Seven Summits arrived at the ranch, between Castlegar and Trail, and went through a short classroom session outlining safety around horses and caring for the animals. Then the group is split up into teams of two or three, each assigned one of the ranch’s docile horses to lead through a series of obstacles and trails.

It’s a lesson in communication, says Hope, who adds that she and her staff are just facilitators - it’s the horses who are the teachers.

“The horses can’t speak, so the students have to pay attention to the horses, and ask them to go different places through body language — and 90 per cent of language is non-verbal.

“The kids are learning by experience, experiencing horses, and learning how the social order of horses — the horses in a herd have very sigificant roles — the lead mare, the stallion, and there’s always a hieirarchy. That’s similar to social structures in our classrooms, workplaces and families.”

The core of equine-assisted learning is participants communicating with animals and each other to achieve goals.

“If they don’t have any horsemanship skills [at the end of the session] I’ve met my goals,” says Hope. “But if they have started to begin developing relationships, and valuing each other as individuals, if they have created trust and respect for each other in thier heirarchy, and if they have become more articulate and have actively listened, then those are the skills we want to develop.”

Designed years ago in First Nations communities in Saskatchewan, and developed and expanded over the years to help people communicate better, support recovery from substance abuse, PTSD, or to grow leadership skills, Hope came across equine-assisted learning after an accident forced her from a nursing career. Active since 2011, Little Oasis has programs for adults, youth, and people who want to develop their leadership skills. They’re used by provincial social services and mental health departments,families, and individuals with fetal alcohol syndrome, autism disorders, and other communication-related issues.

“We don’t treat disorder, but we assist with being able to communicate, articulate, actively listen, so when you are in a state of arousal you can come back to your social functioning,” she says. “I might still need to listen, I might still need to articulate fairly, in a proper tone.”

Even Teck staff come to Little Oasis, as part of a ‘Teck Wellness Group’ that employees can sign up for.

“Well, how valuable is it for an employee to be able to communicate with a boss for some of the things they require? How important is it for husbands and wives to communicate with each other?” she says.

“We don’t treat disorder , but we assist with being able to communicate, articulate, actively listen, so when you are in a state of arousal you can come back to your social functioning,” she says. “I might still need to listen, I might still need to articulate fairly, in a proper tone.”

That’s where the horses come in.

“They allow us to self-reflect a bit. What are these guys doing to ask this horse, which doesn’t speak their language, to bridge that gap?

“It is in your communication. It’s the same with people. Applying the right tone and all those things we use to communicate with each other is vitally important.”

The students here today, raised on cell phones and the internet, are learning communication skills and teamwork — something this generation missed out on as children.

“It’s something we learned playing hide-and-go-seek until bedtime,” says Hope. “Kids don’t do that anymore. In this digital age, we are getting less capable of social skills, being able to have appropriate boundaries, and having those boundaries respected. Being able to talk to one another, listen to one another. As cell phones and computer use went up, our social functioning went down.”

Seven Summits Centre for Learning has one class of students going through the four-week course at Little Oasis now, but Operations Manager Ann Quarterman says they eventually hope every student will get the chance to work with the horses.

“We found it a great way to find out about communcation, and how to deal with different situations in life, and we thought a great skill for kids to learn,” she says.

“They all come away with something… it is an analogy for all things in life so its a great skill-building lesson.”

And just about 15 minutes into working with the animals, things start to change. The fruitless pushing and prodding stops, and the horses start following the students around the paddock. The students are talking calmly to each other, are focused on the animals, giving quiet instruction and watching the animal follow.

At one point a trio of students calls to Hope to watch - they have their horse walking backwards over a series of logs lying on the ground. Hope is impressed with what she sees.

“Wow, that’s really hard,” she says.

The students, all in their mid-teens, say they’ve been moved by the session with the horses too.

“I was scared of horses, I didn’t want to get kicked by them,” said Dylan Cowan. “A friend got kicked by one once, so I am kind of intimidated by them. But these ones are really friendly.”

“It’s really fun, I haven’t been around horses since I was eight,” added Jack Grant. “They can really pick up on your emotions so if you are calm around them, they’ll be calm and happy around you.

“It helps with teamwork, right? If you get frustrated with a teammate, the horse will pick up on it and might get angry or startled and kick or run away. So cooperating with your team respectfully and calmly works with the horses.”

At the end of the hour the students head back to the barn to take off their safety gear and talk about what they learn. Words like ‘patience’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘respect’ are bandied about —the students seemed touch by their experience.

Hope says she’s seen it happen before, and she still is affected by it.

“It was just yesterday, a kid walked into pen, was quite nervous,” she recalled. “At the end of the hour he said ‘I was meant to be here, I can feel my anxiety melt away’.

“It gave me goosebumps, right? But that happens every day. Every session there is something, a change in every kid, in every session.”

Horse people have a saying.

“It’s a grounding experience,” she says. “You have two feet on the ground. You put your hand on a horse, and now you have six.”

Abby McLean has a quiet moment with one of the horses.
Caleb Cowan says he was nervous around horses at first, but learning how to communicate with them eased his concerns.
Jack Grant says listening to the horse helped his team learn to co-operate and communicate.