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Fireside School students walk the runway with their steeds at Spirit Winds Ranch equine-assisted learning grad

At Spirit Winds Ranch, the horses are the teachers.

It was a rewarding but emotional day for some on June 9, as eight young students from Fireside School graduated from the equine-assisted learning program at Spirit Winds Ranch.

In just six short weeks, the students not only learned valuable life skills from working with the horses, but many of them also formed strong bonds with their new equine friends.

“For some of these students, school is not always their favourite place to be,” said Fireside School principal Dave Banderk. “So, this is something that they look forward to every single week.”

At Spirit Winds, the horses are the teachers. Students are paired with one of the 1,200-pound animals once a week to solve an assortment of challenges over the course of the program, which they can only do by learning effective verbal and non-verbal communication and collaboration skills.

One of the last modules the students completed is called ‘Push Me, Pull You.’ Using two halter shanks, students worked together in pairs to carefully maneuver a horse through obstacles.

Ranch owner Laurel Griffin said the horses are the real educators. She and the volunteers who work alongside her in the program are there mainly to ensure safety and act as interpreters to help translate feedback from the horses to the students, and vice-versa.

“If they pull too much and it isn’t clear which way the horse should go, it will rear its head back,” she said. “Then they have to think about what their horse is telling them.”

Another module challenged the students to communicate silently with their steeds, according to Griffin.

“We do it with fun, a little bit of seriousness, a little bit of edginess, and they learn something,” she said.

“This is all about retention of life skills. The skills they learn here don’t stay on this property with these horses. These kids transfer the skills they learn back to school, their lives at home, or wherever they need to.”

The curriculum Griffin uses is adopted directly from Cartier Farms Equine Assisted Learning in Saskatchewan. Cartier Farms is the creator of the award-winning, research-based Equine Assisted Learning Building Block Certification Program.

Griffin, who grew up ranching at Spirit Winds where her family homesteaded in the 1940s, said she made the transition to providing equine-assisted learning about eight years ago. She said she’s always recognized the value of horses to humans.

The horses selected for the program typically have “a lot of mileage and exposure to humans,” Griffin noted. Many of them have been donated to the ranch in their senior years.

The steeds themselves must first go through six months of “horse kindergarten” before they can become part of the program.

In the last module, as part of their graduation day, the students took part in a project runway-style event with the animals. The module included a dressage phase with silly hats, bow ties, feather boas and blankets, followed by a walk down the runway and a short quiz at the end to test their knowledge.

Fireside principal Banderk, who accompanied the students on their first day of the program and on their last, said it was incredible to see the progression they made.

“It’s been amazing seeing their growth and competence with the horses over the last six weeks,” he said. “They were pretty apprehensive on the first day and now they’re telling me stories about the different horses they’ve developed a connection with.

“A lot of these students had never worked together prior to six weeks ago either and now they’re on great terms.”

Grade 5 student Kaden B. said the program was a fun way to learn how to communicate through body language between animals and people.

“Whenever someone doesn’t like something, they’ll show you with hand motions and body motions,” he said. “It’s a different way of sharing in a way, because you can share emotions.”

Kaden described Spirit Winds Ranch as his “happy place,” and said the experience he had there has inspired him to pursue a career providing the same service to someone else.

“I want to grow up and get a bunch of horses and do the same program,” he said.

Spirit Winds Ranch has been working with schools in the Rocky View Schools district for a number of years. In June 2021, Griffin won the contract to become the go-to organization for equine-assisted learning services for the school board for the next five years. Her ranch, located about 20 minutes northwest of Cochrane in Rocky View County, currently serves 13 schools in the area.