Horses as a therapeutic and educational tool

Image from Corpus Christi

Image from Corpus Christi

By Tiernan O’Neill, Principal of Corpus Christi National School

Corpus Christi Primary School is situated in the parish of Moyross in Limerick City. Moyross is an area that is synonymous with social exclusion and educational underachievement and is currently in the midst of a state funded regeneration process. Many of the children in our care come from homes where intensive supports are required to bridge the gaps that decades of disadvantage and disenfranchisement have created. 

In our efforts to help the children break free from the shackles of educational underachievement we are constantly striving to develop programmes that will support us in this process. One such programme is our equine assisted therapy programme. The “Urban Cowboy” phenomenon is an all prevailing presence in local authority housing estates in the city and the local authority spend up to €600,000 every year impounding wandering horses in these estates. This horse culture has for generations been a part of the social geography of the area. It is our firm belief in the school that rather than looking at the horse situation as a problem that needed to be solved, horses could actually be a solution to a problem for us.

Image from Corpus Christi

Image from Corpus Christi

Fortunately, strong links with the Local Garda Youth Diversion Project and the Irish Horse Welfare Trust have enabled us to develop an equine assisted therapy programme, which consists of weekly sessions in an equestrian centre. During these sessions a trained equine therapist works with a number of parents and their children through the medium of the horse. This has provided us with a tremendous platform to develop empathy and support the emotional and social development of the children in our school. 

The benefits of using the horse as a therapeutic tool in this process stems far beyond the obvious cultural attachment and delves into the horses finely attuned senses that monitor human interactions and regulate their reactions accordingly. The instinctual reactions of horses provide feedback to individuals about their behaviour and social actions known as mirroring. A fascinating process to observe when a parent and child have a tempestuous relationship!

It is truly humbling to see the moments of realisation when participants receive positive or negative feedback about their behaviour from the horse’s reaction. This insight and the environment which we attempt to create to allow the participants to reflect on these interactions is a key part of the transformative process. The chaotic nature of the lives of so many of the children has also lead to the development of a whole school mindfulness programme. The central tenets of mindfulness are brought to life through the equine programme as the children and parents become aware of their breathing, movements and demeanour and how it impacts their ability to work effectively with the horse. 

Image from Corpus Christi

Image from Corpus Christi

Caregiving activities are also a key component of the therapy process. It is amazing to see young people who would point blank refuse to clean bedrooms for their parents become so amenable to cleaning up droppings and dirt in the stables, so as to ensure the horses wellbeing. Various research articles outline how the role of nurturer is often taken on by children with their pets. This demonstration of care is closely linked to the child’s sense of empathy. On a weekly basis our equine programme has undoubtedly provided us with an amazing mechanism to develop the children’s empathy. 

Using the horse as both a therapeutic and educational tool has also supported the creation of a learning environment that encourages children to explore the full range of their abilities. Skills and traits are being developed that will enable these children to make a positive contribution to society and with the necessary support bring about real change in their community. A tangible example of the programme’s success is the number of children who completed the first programme 8 years ago, who as adults have secured employment in the equine industry. It truly has been a “changemaking” journey for these participants. By also involving parents in the programme we are hoping to fundamentally alter the social capital in one of the most marginalised capitals in the state. 

It was Pam Browne that said “A horse is the projection of people’s dreams about themselves – strong, powerful and beautiful – they have the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.” It is my expressed hope that as we work with Ashoka and our fellow Changemaker Schools that programmes like this can create a platform to ensure that our children’s dreams are reached and that education leads to opportunity.