There is magic in the moment when something reaches and teaches a child in ways typical school settings can’t. For some children with special needs, this breakthrough is found with horses. For almost 20 years, the nonprofit Rose of Sharon Equestrian School (ROSES) has provided equine-facilitated learning services that draw upon the therapeutic potential of the human-horse bond to facilitate change, growth and healing. ROSES has worked with close to 800 children, ages 2 to 18 and beyond, throughout its history.
Novel approach to goals
Executive Director Joan Marie Twining is a master’s-level special educator and equine specialist in mental health and learning. In addition, she is a certified therapeutic riding instructor with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
“Most of our students come to us with an IEP,” Twining explains. “I scour those plans for every goal and objective we can address with the horses at the stable. Often by the time a student has an IEP, they have experienced a significant amount of failure. At the barn, we take a strength-based approach, working with what the students can do, and then up the challenge each visit. Meeting and overcoming challenges in the company of a large living, breathing, communicating horse is very motivating.”
Horses don’t front
“The feedback from the horse is honest, immediate and without judgment, which presents a very objective cause-and-effect lesson,” says Twining. “If the student doesn’t get the response he or she was expecting or hoping for from the horse, they’ll try again and get something different.”
She notes that the “subsequent sense of accomplishment is palpable, and the student wants more! Much of this occurs in a nonverbal way, which is important. Many of our students have disabilities that affect language processing or expression. Although our sessions are highly structured and comfortingly predictable, the overall process is dynamic, stimulating and rewarding.”
From the ground up
Beyond imparting basic riding skills, ROSES teaches students how to care for the animals and their equipment. “They learn to handle them, keep the horses’ environment clean and safe, and feed and water. In warmer weather, they bathe the horses,” says Twining.
“Physically, it takes strength, balance and coordination to work around, handle and ride a horse. Mentally, students must remain aware of safe procedures, recall steps in sequence and anticipate results of their actions or inactions,” she adds. “Emotionally, students must begin to learn to self-regulate their reactions, recognize the effect their behavior has on others and cooperate as part of a team.”
The horses at ROSES are selected to be safe, sound and special. “The horses need to be engaged and engaging. They need to be forgiving of simple mistakes,” says Twining.
These horses are intuitive “teachers” as well, which adds to their remarkable student-horse bonding potential. “In so many instances, we have seen the horses respond in inexplicably accurate ways to what the student said, asked, was feeling or seemed to need,” she says.
Experience of a lifetime
“We’ve had children do things here that they had yet to accomplish anywhere else,” says Twining. “We had children speak some of their first words to the horses; students who did not smile or laugh squeal with delight when they saw their favorite horse. We had a student who crumpled to the ground in anxiety upon arrival end up bathing and ground driving a miniature horse in harness by the time her eight-week session was over.”
Students carry these positive experiences forward. Some come back to volunteer or to do internships. Another former student is a current employee.
Speech-language pathologist Jennifer Reilly has personal and professional appreciation of the benefits of equine-facilitated learning. “ROSES incorporates functional communication skills unique to each child—from verbal communication to picture systems,” she says.
“Overall, working with horses offers great opportunities to practice gross motor, fine motor and functional communication skills.”
Beverly German’s grandson Cooper attended ROSES for two years. “Cooper was experiencing social challenges at his public school that were connected to him being on the autism spectrum, and we wanted him to get involved in an outside activity. I was blown away by how it would be so therapeutic for him,” she recalls.
Cooper made gains in social and communication skills while learning to groom and care for the horses.
“Each horse has individual temperaments. It was almost as if Cooper’s awareness of his special needs motivated him to respond to the horses’ special needs. The best part for Coop was his connection and love of the horses, and interacting with adults who had a deep understanding of his uniqueness,” German says. “He was as comfortable socially at ROSES as he was interacting with family.”
Lisa Reed’s son, Reed, is an energetic 10-year-old who has Mowat-Wilson syndrome, a rare genetic abnormality which manifests with developmental disability and communication delays. During COVID-19 shutdowns, Lisa worried about her son losing access to school-based occupational and speech therapy. She began to research equine-facilitated learning services and found ROSES.
Initially, Reed was a bit afraid and totally in awe of the horses. His instinct was to just watch and not interact. He overcame his fears and discovered new self-assurance.
“As he helps take care of Joan’s horses in this calm environment, it leaves him calm and proud of himself,” says Lisa. “I like watching him walk in confidently and start asking questions of Joan. Using ‘what, where, how and why’ questions has long been a goal. I have seen Reed open up to other people with these questions. He is taking chances and initiating the connections he desires.”
Stepping up in the stables can unlock a completely new world of possibilities.