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Horses and happiness – animal therapy program helps students manage stress

The Equine Assisted Learning Program, an animal therapy initiative, began in 2021 at Mount Gambier North Primary School as a test to improve the wellbeing of students with complex needs.

The brains behind the program is Judy Jenkin, a former event rider and teacher at the school.

The program sees Judy – also an accredited equine assisted learning practitioner through the Equine Psychotherapy Institute – bring three of her 10 horses from her Suttontown farm to the school.

Judy says the students then interact with the animals and learn how to apply wellbeing strategies, like being aware of body language, how they feel internally, how to communicate, and how to respond to stress.

Judy Jenkin, a former event rider and teacher at the school, with Bonnie and Coco.

“Horses give a really unique view of living in the moment,” Judy says.

At Mount Gambier North, teachers incorporate the Berry Street Education Model to improve students’ self-regulation, relationships, wellbeing, growth, and academic achievement.

According to Judy the most significant opportunity that the Equine Assisted Learning Program provides is giving students an opportunity to apply these strategies, in a unique context.

“We identify the strategies in the school, in consultation with the students, but it’s very difficult for a teacher, when they’ve got 20 or more students, to walk these kids through those strategies and put them into practice,” Judy says.

“When we’re in Equine Assisted Learning, we can create scenarios where we can put the strategies into practice, and we can explore with the students what that feels like to make a choice to find their strategy.”

Quite often, if students are heightened, stressed, or anxious, it’s difficult to remember what their strategy is.

“We go through a lot of body awareness and resourcing so that they can have the presence of mind to recall what their strategies are,” Judy says.

“Then we can create a scenario where we can put their strategy into place.”

North Gambier student Mayson gives Bonnie a pat.

According to the feedback she has received from teachers and from what Judy has seen in students, the program is having great success—success she hopes can be proven with multi-year data.

The Program received initial funding in 2021 through OneFortyOne and Stand Like Stone.

OneFortyOne has now committed to supporting the program over the next three years, taking Judy’s aspiration a step closer to becoming reality.

Judy said the further funding is huge for the program’s future and for gaining recognition through the Department of Education.

The students involved interact with the animals and learn how to apply wellbeing strategies

“The benefit is that we can support future development of the program. We have been collecting data but it is still very early in its stages.”

“With this multi-year partnership and support we will have solid data, we will have outcomes, and we will have all the evidence to prove that it is effective.”

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See onefortyone.com/community/grants for more information.

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