Learn­ing with horse power

More and more schools are now invit­ing an­i­mals in to schools. Here’s what hap­pens when they visit

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sylvia Thomp­son

Most of us are fa­mil­iar with guide dogs for peo­ple who are blind. Com­pan­ion dogs for chil­dren with autism and other learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties are also be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon. But aside from the won­der­ful work done by these highly trained ser­vice dogs, there is an­other trend that is bring­ing an­i­mals and chil­dren to­gether.

Ini­ti­ated by char­i­ties such as Dogs Trust and Festina Lente, more and more schools are now invit­ing an­i­mals – dogs and ponies in par­tic­u­lar– into class­rooms and school gar­dens to in­ter­act with pupils. To find out how the chil­dren re­spond to these ini­tia­tives, The Ir­ish Times went along to two schools when the an­i­mals vis­ited.

Au­drey Gough from Dogs Trust is walk­ing her King Charles dog, Lucy, in the gar­dens of St Fran­cis Xavier Se­nior School in Blan­chard­stown, Dublin when I ar­rive. Gough has al­ready been into the ju­nior classes and is giv­ing Lucy a break be­fore go­ing in to meet the fourth-class pupils. As I join her, the chil­dren are go­ing back into class and many of them want to pat Lucy on their way by. But, Gough points out that you can’t just pet a dog with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion of the owner first.

Ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing

Even dur­ing these brief en­coun­ters, the chil­dren are en­gag­ing with an ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing ap­proach that will prob­a­bly have a more last­ing im­pact on them than an aca­demic ap­proach to learn­ing about an­i­mals. “Our aim is to ed­u­cate chil­dren to be re­spon­si­ble dog own­ers and to help them un­der­stand that a dog isn’t a com­mod­ity. It has to be minded,” ex­plains Gough.

Once in the class­room, Gough talks to the chil­dren about what they should do if a dog runs up to them in the park and they are afraid. “Ig­nore it. Stand still and don’t look at the dog,” she ex­plains. Gough says it’s a good idea to criss-cross your arms across your chest and look up at the sky and start walk­ing away to show the dog you’re not in­ter­ested.

Gough talks about the work of Dogs Trust, look­ing af­ter aban­doned dogs be­fore find­ing new homes for them. The chil­dren are all at­ten­tive and keen to share what knowl­edge they have of dogs while Gough tells Lucy to sit on her mat, giv­ing her a bowl of water to keep her quiet. Now and again, Lucy barks and Gough tells her to sit qui­etly. The chil­dren sit and watch, sub­tly learn­ing these ba­sic skills in look­ing af­ter a dog.

“It’s not good to give dogs kisses and cuddles. Also when dogs are eat­ing or sleep­ing or left out­side a shop on a lead, it’s best to leave them alone,” ex­plains Gough. At the end of the 40-minute class, the teacher, Fiona Hy­land, in­vites two chil­dren to come and pet Lucy. “You put your hand in the shape of a fist so the dog can smell you first be­fore you pet a dog,” says Gough. As a dog owner my­self, I hadn’t ever heard this be­fore.

Re­spon­si­ble pet own­er­ship

The Dublin So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals (DSPCA) also vis­its schools to en­cour­age re­spon­si­ble pet own­er­ship and respect for an­i­mals. How­ever, they no longer bring dogs into the class­room. “It be­came all about the dog rather than learn­ing about respect for an­i­mals,” ex­plains Gillian Bird from the DSPCA.

Now, the DSPCA teams bring giant African land snails with them on school vis­its. “It’s about teach­ing em­pa­thy – even hum­ble snails feel hot and cold, hun­gry and thirsty, ex­cited, scared and in pain,” says Bird. The snails are kept in a small pet car­rier with soil and in­tro­duced to the chil­dren to­wards the end of the class. “We talk to the chil­dren about the en­tire animal king­dom from mam­mals – in­clud­ing hu­mans – to spi­ders and birds. Some chil­dren love to hold the snails in the palm of their hands.”

The two Shet­land ponies nib­bling at the grass in the en­closed gar­den at St Colm­cille’s pri­mary school in Bally­brack, Co Dublin look like they are in par­adise on a sunny morn­ing in May. Cather­ine Wynne, the home school com­mu­nity li­ai­son of­fi­cer, or­gan­ises for the ponies to visit from their home at Festina Lente eques­trian cen­tre in Bray, Co Wick­low.

Three chil­dren from sixth class take turns spend­ing about 20 min­utes with each Shet­land pony, brush­ing or braid­ing her as she eats the grass. “We are fo­cus­ing on sixth-class chil­dren to pre­pare them for the tran­si­tion to sec­ondary school,” ex­plains Wynne.

Siofra Hayes Mo­ri­arty from Festina Lente says that learn­ing how to con­nect with Shet­land ponies brings chil­dren back to their own feel­ings. “It’s a form of so­cial and emo­tional learn­ing. The ponies give you minute-by-minute feed­back. They won’t fol­low the chil­dren if they are ag­gres­sive to­wards them. If your en­ergy is calm, the ponies will be calm back to them. It helps the chil­dren un­der­stand them­selves bet­ter.”

Hayes Mo­ri­arty says that while the Shet­land ponies at Festina Lente don’t get rid­den, they do a lot of work. “They are great with wheel­chair users and peo­ple who are ner­vous around an­i­mals,” she says.

It’s a form of so­cial and emo­tional learn­ing. The ponies give you minute by minute feed­back. They won’t fol­low the chil­dren if they are ag­gres­sive to­wards them


Watch­ing how the chil­dren from St Colm­cille’s in­ter­act with the ponies is calm­ing in it­self. Ciaran Red­din (12) says that be­ing with the ponies calms him down. Colm Schofield (12) talks about other an­i­mals the school has em­braced. “We got chick­ens and I had to clean up the chicken coop. We had CCTV cam­era to record the births of the chick­ens but we did see one live birth,” he says. The school also adopted fish from the Seal­ife aquar­ium in Bray and the chil­dren had to record the tem­per­a­ture of the aquar­ium each day, clean the tank and feed the fish.

St Colm­cille’s School prin­ci­pal, Ai­dan Boyle, says this form of learn­ing is in con­trast to most school work. “Ev­ery­thing has to be quan­ti­fied now in terms of nu­mer­acy and lit­er­ary, but you can’t quan­tify this. It’s a qual­ity ex­pe­ri­ence and we use it for chil­dren with be­reave­ment is­sues, those lack­ing in con­fi­dence and to make school more at­trac­tive for those who might be miss­ing days at school.”

Boyle says that teach­ers have no­ticed a huge im­prove­ment in the moods of the chil­dren who en­gage with the ponies. “These chil­dren don’t get a lot of time to them­selves and they are al­most in a daze when they are groom­ing the ponies,” he adds.

Re­searchers have found that an­i­mals in

schools can pro­mote lan­guage, imag­i­na­tion and self-re­flec­tion – es­pe­cially in young chil­dren.


When used as mas­cots or pets within the class­room, guinea pigs, ger­bils or even fish can also mo­ti­vate chil­dren to en­gage more in school work. Some teach­ers also in­te­grate the class­room pet into lessons about sci­ence, ge­og­ra­phy and math­e­mat­ics.

Wynne says the chil­dren also ben­e­fit from the team­work of in­ter­act­ing with an­i­mals. “We also bring some chil­dren from the school to Festina Lente for equine-fa­cil­i­tated ed­u­ca­tion and as­sisted learn­ing pro­grammes and there is a huge dif­fer­ence in their be­hav­iour at school and at home af­ter­wards,” says Wynne. “These pro­grammes ben­e­fit all chil­dren but they are es­pe­cially good for chil­dren with autism spec­trum dis­or­der [ASD] or at­ten­tion deficit hy­per­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der [ADHD]. They are so calm af­ter do­ing the classes,” she adds.

Betty O’Con­nor is a sec­ondary school teacher who teaches teenagers in the ado­les­cent unit of St John of God’s Hospi­tal, Stil­lor­gan, Co Dublin. The Shet­land ponies from Festina Lente vis­ited as part of the teenagers’ so­cial, per­sonal and health ed­u­ca­tion (SPHE) pro­gramme. “We pre­pared for their visit by learn­ing about how to care for horses and their sleep­ing, eat­ing and drink­ing habits and then the young peo­ple were able to groom and stroke them and bring them around the grounds of the hospi­tal,” says O’Con­nor. The pro­gramme was held for two hours per week over eight weeks. “I think it was good for their self-es­teem and those who had ac­cess to horses in the past were able to share their knowl­edge with the other stu­dents.”

The Amer­i­can animal be­hav­iour spe­cial­ist, Tem­ple Grandin, also vis­ited Ire­land in May. Renowned for her books – in­clud­ing

An­i­mals Make Us Hu­man – and her work with chil­dren with autism, Grandin says it is a big loss that so many city chil­dren now have very lit­tle or no con­tact with an­i­mals.

“Dogs in par­tic­u­lar are re­ally im­por­tant for com­pan­ion­ship and for some chil­dren, dogs can teach them em­pa­thy,” she says. She be­lieves the idea of hav­ing pets in schools is a good one. “Some psy­chol­o­gists now have dogs in their of­fices to help chil­dren talk about their prob­lems,” she adds.

These pro­grammes ben­e­fit all chil­dren but they are es­pe­cially good for chil­dren with Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der (ASD) or At­ten­tion Deficit Hy­per­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der (ADHD)


Siofra Hayes Mo­ri­arty, equine fa­cil­i­ta­tor with Festina Lente in Bray Co Wick­low, helps pupils from at St Colum­cilles, Bally­brack, Co Dublin with shet­land ponies from the Festina Lente eques­trian cen­tre. Left: Global animal wel­fare and autism ex­pert Dr...


Christo­pher Byrne, age 11 (top right), from Shankill, and Ciarán Red­din, age 12, groom a shet­land pony at St Colum­cilles in Bally­brack, Co Dublin; right: Au­drey, Gough, from the Dog Trust with her dog, Lucy. far right be­low: DSPCA snails

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