Just over twelve months ago I was lucky enough to have my own Equine Facilitated experience with Heather and Catherine from HorseHeard; I was so intrigued by this new and exciting way of learning, that it became the focus of my doctoral research.
Much of the literature that I have read so far about Equine Facilitated Learning focuses upon the use of the intervention with adolescents and adults. Coming from a teaching background myself, I wondered what, if anything, what would happen if this way of learning was used as an intervention with primary aged children.
So, after some reflection upon my own experiences, I wanted to find out ‘what would be the actual experience of Equine Facilitated Learning for primary aged children, what would it really mean to them? And what would change for them, if anything, as a result of the experience? I posed the question, ‘what would the school experience be of Equine Facilitated Learning as an intervention, to support the emotional health and wellbeing of children?’
I used an exploratory research design, encompassing a phenomenological approach. I used mixed methods to collect data. Observations, semi-structured interviews, photograph and video elicitation are all methods useful for investigating children’s experiences, and using these methods that is what I set out to do.
The context for my research would be a suburban primary school with 200 children on roll. It was decided that Year 5 would be the most appropriate year group to participate, firstly because physically they would be a little bigger and more independent to be around the horses, and secondly, they would be required to be away from school for the sessions and I did not want to interfere with any SATs preparations. So, six pupils; 4 boys and 2 girls, were selected by the Headteacher to participate.
The children had 4 sessions in total, one two hour session per week for four weeks. I then met with the children in school both pre and post intervention to hear what they had to say.
The research is very much still in progress with yet more data to be collected during the coming months. However, just to give you a flavour of the sort of data emerging so far I have identified the following themes:
- Working as part of a team and team building – One young man said that he was proudest of working as a team and would try to work more as a group in class and be more patient.
- Shared learning – the children had chance to share what they had learned with the others in the group through discussion and reflection.
- Problem Solving, including planning and forward thinking, finding inner resourcefulness
- Freedom of choice in activities and opportunities to explore
- Developing an awareness of how your actions affect those around you – one of the group talked about how he had learned to be caring with the ponies, and although he felt he was already quite a caring person, he realised that he often teased others at school and that this was something that he realised he shouldn’t be doing.
- Developing emotional literacy – talking and thinking about feelings (yours and other people’s) In one session the children were asked to think about some of the feelings they had experienced; frustrated, weary and scared were mentioned alongside glad, happy and playful.
- Developing communication skills and in some cases leadership skills. Children were often given individual opportunities to take the lead in a task and throughout the team activities I watched how the natural leaders within the group seemed to emerge.
- Perseverance and self belief – One pupil said that she was most proud of being with the ponies because she has never done this before and she had learned to believe in herself and that she wouldn’t let herself be pushed around anymore. At times I watched some of the children face tasks which they undoubtedly found challenging and I thought they would give up. However, with the encouragement of their peers and the coaches it was amazing to witness the children find inner resourcefulness and determination to succeed.
- Experiencing success, reflecting upon success and celebrating success seemed to be a fundamental element of the programme.
- Having fun, yet being challenged seemed to allow the children to experience learning new skills by taking them into unfamiliar territory and out of their comfort zones.
On a final note, I must say that at the end of the sessions I felt a sense of sadness that our fun Tuesday afternoons had come to an end. As a researcher, I had watched a group of initially nervous yet excited children flourish and grow in confidence through the opportunities that were offered to them. I observed them face individual challenges and with them I celebrated achievements and success and I am immensely proud to have been a part of their learning experiences.