At CMS, “A” Is For Animals

A Is For Animals 

 

Take Ten Kids, Two Horses and a classroom in a barn. Sprinkle in some cowboy folklore and you’ve got a winning educational opportunity. It’s called animal-assisted learning, and it is the most recent campus-based addition to Crotched Mountain School’s experiential approach to learning. Facilitated by the staff and horses of UpReach Therapeutic Riding Center (TRC) in Goffstown, the goal is to present students with lessons that engage the mind, body and heart and that can be applied across many settings and situations. The 12-week curriculum is part of the regular school routine as, for two hours a week, such topics as imagination, courage and respect are explored experientially by the students through interaction with horses. “The horses provide a focus for learning and self-discovery,” says Kristen McGraw, UpReach TRC director, who currently transports the horses to and from the CM campus twice a week for classes.

 

For instance, during a recent session focused on courage, the students talked about courage through the lens of cowboy culture. “We looked at how cowboys use courage and then asked the students how they might use courage in their daily lives,” explains Kristen. For many, courage came into play immediately as they met Breezie, a large, friendly horse and the more diminutive Vader, for the first time. For some, it was throwing a lasso as they tried to rope a make-believe cow, while timed barrel races tested the math prowess of others. “Each activity took the courage to fail and the courage to try again,” Kristen points out.

 

She recalls one young man with intense anxiety who first observed the horses from a distance. Over a few sessions, the student slowly approached, touched the horse and eventually was able to brush it. “Now he’s asking to visit the horse!” says Kristen, pointing out the student can use the process to confront other anxiety-producing situations. The horses, Vader and Breezie, have ideal temperaments for this work. “They’re very calm and comfortable around people,” says Kristen, as she watches a student lead Vader around the paddock from his wheelchair. Teacher John Healy, whose class attends the weekly lessons, notes that some of his students were reluctant to engage with the horses at first, but now sees them developing caring relationships with the animals.

 

Anthony, a student from Brooklyn, gently combs Vader’s forelock before the class heads out for a group lesson about teamwork and the Pony Express. “Wait,” he calls out, “Vader needs to look good before we go.” After taking part in a simulated Pony Express, a lesson that includes history, biology, geography, group decision-making and more, the class returns to the barn to process their experience. They debrief using group rules of their own creation that include working hard, speaking one at a time, cooperation, honesty, safety and fun.

 

Horses are just one aspect of animal-assisted learning at CMS. At the Farm School, which has been in operation at CMS for several years, students raise chickens, train and groom dogs, and grow and sell produce and other farm products while learning responsibility, caring and compassion for animals, and academics like math and science. “We strive to create animal-assisted activities where the students are able to nurture and be nurtured by animals. The addition of horses builds on the Farm School mission to teach practical skills while imparting an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life,” said Jean Polovchik, Farm School educator.

 

Bill Cossaboon, CMS principal, says the horses are just the latest addition to a long history of animal-assisted learning. “The students have always worked with animals like turtles and fish in science class.” He points out that animal-assisted learning has become more formalized over the years with the introduction of the Farm School, Sunnyfield Farm — an organic farm owned by Crotched Mountain — and most recently, horses. “Many students respond to the animals as if a switch has been thrown. Suddenly, they’re different. They’re relaxed, more open, more themselves,” says Bill. CM mental health counselor Elizabeth Licht also sees immediate benefits. “These children struggle with connection. For many, it doesn’t come naturally. The animals welcome a child in their own special way, and for a child with a sensory or communication disorder, that’s a beautiful thing.”

 

To learn more about animal-assisted learning at Crotched Mountain School, contact:
Director of Admissions  
603.547.3311 ext. 1894
admissions@crotchedmountain.org  



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