Pet project makes difference

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 Ms Jenkin – 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.

Ms Jenkin said 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.

“Horses give a really unique view of living in the moment,” she said.

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

According to Ms Jenkin, the most significant opportunity 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 have got 20 or more students, to walk these kids through those strategies and put them into practice,” she said.

“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 they can have the presence of mind to recall what their strategies are,” Ms Jenkin said.

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

Ms Jenkin is now looking to validate the positive feed back she was received 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 Ms Jenkin’s aspiration a step closer to becoming reality.

Ms Jenkin said the further funding was huge for the program’s future and for gaining recognition through the Department of Education.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

The OneFortyOne Community Grants program is open year round.

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