Horse whisperers

G.W. Carver Academy using horses to counsel kids

Date Published: 
January 5, 2018

Two new faces arrived on the playground at George Washington Carver Academy this autumn. One blonde and one brunette, they nibbled grass while waiting to meet the students.

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Kareem Hood hangs with Mr. Jones at G.W. Carver Academy in December. Cute Horse is in the background.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Kareem Hood hangs with Mr. Jones at G.W. Carver Academy in December. Cute Horse is in the background.In a unique approach to counseling, the Carver school brought an equine program to elementary and middle-school students.

School Counselor Whitney Price said she saw fewer office referrals and better behavior from students who attended the program regularly.

“They are enjoying it,” Price said. “We’re seeing a side of some of our students that we haven’t seen before, which is really empathy, compassion, a really gentle approach, which is really neat. We’re excited.”

Carver Academy is an alternative school for the Indian River School District, addressing the academic, behavioral and personal needs of about 70 K-12 students at any given time.

“We don’t want to be known as the school where the bad kids go. That’s not our purpose,” Price said. “We have amazing kids who just, for some reason, made some bad choices or need to [work on] coping mechanisms.”

The school district won grant money to make the program possible, and Carver staff are applying for more grants to continue the program in the spring.

Based in Lincoln, Courageous Hearts Equine Assisted Psychotherapy & Learning Center hosts similar horsey programs across the state, bringing their own mental-health clinicians and horse specialists.

“Horses are large and powerful, often creating a natural opportunity for some to overcome fear,” according to Courageous Hearts staff. “Horses are very much like humans, in that they are social animals. They have defined roles in their herd, they require work, and they have distinct personalities, attitudes and mood.”

They’re sensitive to non-verbal communication, so students who can’t convince a horse to follow certain commands might have to rethink their own actions. It isn’t a riding program, so kids keep their feet on the ground.

According to the program’s staff, everyone reacts differently to meeting a horse for the first time.

“Some of them are intimidated. Some just walk right up,” said Bekah Baughman, daughter of Courageous Hearts owner Rosemary. “For these kids, the teachers said they had never seen them that calm. They just petted them for an hour.”

On a warm December day, three elementary-schoolers trotted out to the temporary paddock. They’d had several previous visits, so they were comfortable leading the horses around.

How are the horses doing today? “They’re good!” the students said.

Horses have distinct personalities, but they’re presented to the students as a blank slate: no names, no gender, no information.

“We want them to discover this themselves,” said Linda Muncy, an equine specialist for Courageous Hearts. “We don’t give them any information about the horses, because they become metaphors.”

Every week, the kids assign names and genders to the horses. This week, the students named the two Welsh ponies “Cute Horse” and “Mr. Jones” (after a favorite staffer who was outside with them).

Kids reveal their own thoughts as they observe and interpret horse behavior.

Why are the horses standing so far apart today? The answers might be a projection of the students’ own minds or mood. (Maybe the horses need some alone-time. Maybe they’re angry at each other or one is a bully.) That gives counselors a foothold to help children discuss those kinds of feelings. “Why do you think this horse might be a bully?” “What makes him act that way?” “Why do you feel this way?”

On the surface, the kids learn how to brush, pet or even lead a horse around. But the lessons teach deeper skills, including empathy and respect. When Kareem Hood leapt in front of Mr. Jones, the horse jerked its head away. But Kareem then knowingly stroked the horse’s nose and calmed him down.

There are teachable moments everywhere. When startled, one horse ducked away. Humans do that too, Muncy said. “That’s how we stay safe.”

The day’s topic was goals, so students shared their own dreams for the future: to be a tiger trainer or a college football player. Then they got creative while imagining the horses’ goals. The kids decided Mr. Jones wants to visit Hawaii, so they dressed him in flowery leis and a sunhat.

“You always want to instill hope in the kids for the future,” said Michelle Munday, a mental-health intern at Courageous Hearts.

“The students really seem to look forward to this,” said school social worker Ann Breneman. Afterward, they draw or write about their experience with the horses.

These horses themselves have no special training. They’re just calm and non-aggressive. The program’s staff said horses are calming in general. The big creatures will cooperate with humans, but they also don’t take nonsense from anybody, which makes them perfect for working with kids.

Depending on grant availability, G.W. Carver Academy staff hope to bring the Courageous Hearts program back for high-school students this spring.