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Equine therapy helping Tasmanian primary school kids learn

Posted Wednesday 26 August 2020 at 6:39 am, updated Wednesday 26 August 2020 at 2:33 pm

Karina Harper has been a teacher for more than 20 years, but it was only recently that she realised that horses could make learning easier for her primary school students.

Once Ms Harper made the decision to combine horses and teaching, she found an international course in equine therapy being offered that year in Tasmania.

After that, it was just a matter of getting her boss to let her do a pilot program with some of her students.

"I just know how incredible horses have been in my life, and that started me on a path wondering whether I could combine the two and whether I could help these kids in a different way," she told ABC Radio Hobart.

"In all my life of working with horses I have always had a sense that they make me feel better, but I didn't know why, or how."

Horses as teachers

Ms Harper now runs regular equine-facilitated learning courses with students and other members of the community using six horses on a property in Mangalore, north of Hobart.

"It is about learning with horses to learn about ourselves," she said.

"The horse becomes a co-facilitator or co-teacher and they help model emotional regulation and help with all sorts of things that you can't necessarily do in a traditional classroom.

"Straight away there was such a difference."

Bagdad Primary sixth-grader Lachlan Hobart said spending time with the horses at Ms Harper's stable had made him re-examine the way people interact.

"They breathe on you and that is them saying 'Hello,'" he said.

"You get to meet the horses and you can communicate with them in different ways that you communicate with humans."

Zane Hales, one of Lachlan's classmates, says his favourite horse is Paddington, or Paddy for short.

"She is a brown horse, pretty big, pretty decently big and she's got very distinctive brown fur and very big hooves," he said.

Lachlan said that the horses have made him learn about humans too.

"Well, we learnt about the zones of regulation and that the horses have the same emotions as humans and we have to be careful with what we do around them," he said.

"They get sad when they are by themselves and not in a group."

Zones of regulation

Ms Harper says the "zones of regulation" are "basically a way of identifying how the students are feeling."

"We talk about tools for regulating behaviour, how the horses can be in the zones too, and how we can get ourselves back to the green zone," she said.

Of the four zones, green is the "ready to learn" zone.

"They can look at the horses and say, 'I've put the horses in the green zone because they are feeling calm,'" Ms Harper said.

In the right headspace to learn

Equine-facilitated learning emphasises the development of verbal and nonverbal communication.

Bagdad Primary School principal Collette Harrold said teachers were seeing a noticeable difference in the classroom as a result of the program.

"You can have the best curriculum there is, but they are not in the position to learn," said Ms Harrold.

"We have tried different tactics — we had a therapy dog, and we see that interacting with animals, be it dogs or these giant horses, has a really positive effect on the children."

"I know schools are there to teach reading and writing but if kids have come from complex trauma background or have learning difficulties in class they just can't settle.

"We have to get them ready to learn and that includes being self-aware, and the horses give the students this opportunity."

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