Dec. 5, 2016 -- Sometimes students do their best learning far outside the four walls of a traditional classroom. That is certainly the case for special education students from Boulevard, Canterbury, Fairfax, Gearity, Monticello and Roxboro Middle Schools.
Over the past several months, some of their best learning has taken place at Fieldstone Farm on the backs of horses. As brochures for the therapeutic riding center located in Chagrin Falls explain, “Therapy horses motivate, encourage, and comfort. They help our students build confidence and strength, making a connection without saying a word.”
Students from each of the above mentioned schools visit the 40-acre farm once a week for six weeks. Once there, they’re split into two groups; one engaged in lessons in a classroom and one horseback riding, either in the barn or outside on trails.
Students in the classroom learn new vocabulary words, starting with basics like the types and colors of horses, grooming tools, and other vocabulary related to riding. Using a life-size model, students learn the body parts of horses and then tape laminated words to the actual body parts of a real (and real patient) horse. They spent one afternoon measuring their horses: overall height, height to top of shoulder, length from tail to head, and circumference of their waist, and comparing those measurements to their own.
All these lessons expand their vocabulary and introduce them to new concepts in a real world setting. They’re not just learning how to groom a horse by filling in a worksheet; they’re learning by actually grooming a live horse.
“They’re much more motivated to learn these new words if they know that their own horse is chestnut or if they’re about to go hold a bridle in their hands,” said Fairfax intervention specialist Rochelle Klein.
Not surprisingly, it is the riding that students look forward to the most, even if their excitement is tinged with anxiety. Many of these children have had little experience with live animals, especially those that weigh as much as 1,200 pounds.
“Some of them are definitely afraid at first,” said Valerie Joseph, another Fairfax teacher. “But they get better and better each week. Now they hop right on.”
Building confidence is one of the most important goals of therapeutic riding, which takes place at centers all over the country. As one of the largest such centers in the nation, Fieldstone Farm explains on its website that “Horses help people challenge limits and achieve goals they never thought possible.”
Roxboro Middle School teacher Laura Moss has a seemingly simple goal for her students -- that when faced with new or daunting experiences, they replace their automatic response of “I can’t” with “I’ll try.” Their visits to Fieldstone are definitely helping.
“They’re gaining confidence doing something they might find intimidating. This is a experience many of my students wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Riding also requires core strength, coordination and balance, all necessary skills for students with physical limitations. All children ride their own horses, with two Fieldstone volunteers on either side of them for safety. The fact that students have to interact and communicate with adults who are not their regular teachers and aides is another benefit to the program.
“Learning to trust and communicate with other grown-ups is such an important skill for them,” said Klein.
And sometimes, the staff and volunteers at Fieldstone are willing to push students farther than their regular teachers might.
“The staff there simply won’t let the kids quit,” said Joshua Goldberg, teacher at Roxboro Middle. “While we as teachers might be ready to step in and say, ‘Ok, this is too much for them,’ the staff insists that they can do it and they shoo us away. And they’re right! The kids can do it.”
Even many parents are apprehensive at first, reported Klein, wondering “Is this something my kid is actually capable of?” But as the weeks go by, the parents get more and comfortable and more and more excited.
Fieldstone Farm is sponsoring the district’s participation this year with its Ridership funds, while the district pays for transportation. Last year, only elementary classes had this unique opportunity but it’s since been expanded to classes in both middle schools as well.
Winni Spisak, Student Services Coordinator at Fieldstone, sees countless benefits to participants, from being out in nature to overcoming their fears. “The motion of the horse as it moves up and down helps the children become more aware of their body and balance. They really need core strength in order to guide and steer their horse.”
Students have to learn and use directional words and verbal commands such as “Walk on, trot and whoa.”
Fairfax student LaTrice was excited when she learned to trot, which she describes as “not at all scary.”
Justin, from Rox Mid, loves to ride his horse Tootie because, “I lead my horse and we lead the line. I like animals.”
More than anything, the students seem to experience real joy and pride as they mount and ride their horses. Their backs are straight and their smiles are broad as they guide their horses through the grounds of Fieldstone Farm, which Board Member Tammie Packer describes as “One of those places where you truly live in the moment.”