A few Bell Elementary students were asked to put a harness on a horse last week. They had never done that before and no one told them how to do it. Together, they had to figure out what to do.
Later, the students had to create an obstacle course for horses. Connected by a string, the students led the horses around the obstacle course at Tyler ISD's equine center.
Educators are hoping the students will transfer problem-solving, their ability to work in small groups and knowledge of how to respond in different circumstances that they acquire at the equine center into the classroom, cafeteria and playground.
Funded with a grant from Tyler ISD Education Foundation, Bell's Equine Assisted Learning Day program provides three 90-minute trips to the equine center this spring and three next fall for selected students. The sessions focus on building leaders and leadership skills.
"We are hoping to see positive behavioral changes," Sarah Jane Walker, Bell's school counselor, said.
The students have to think through how to solve problems while working with the horses and think about what they could do to help the situation, she said. "We want to have those questions stick in their head and take them back to school and ask themselves the same questions," Ms. Walker said.
The students do not ride the horses, but they have to figure out how to interrelate with the horses and get the horses to do what they are asking them to do, Ms. Walker said.
"They love coming and want to work with the horses, but they have to act appropriately around them and not scare the horses," she said.
Keldrick Ford, 9, a fourth grader, said he had gotten to brush the horses' hair, make them go through obstacle courses and feed them. "We have to challenge the horses just like the teacher challenges us. I love working the horses like a team. It helps me to be a better person and to help people," he said.
Aniya Hartsfield, 10, a fourth grader, said, "the horses might not like us being rude around them. I know the teachers don't like us being rude at school. I've learned to be nicer to get along with people you don't like at school."
Students have to lead the horses through gentleness and a quiet voice and they come to the equine center eager and very willing to follow directions, Ms. Walker said. "They are learning more self control. We are showing them you can handle situations in calm, positive ways to get things to happen," she added.
Janice McDaniel, equine specialist for Tyler ISD, works with the students on leadership, problem solving, behavior and strategies for how to succeed in school.
Students worked with three horses Friday – an Arabian, a pony and a cross between Appaloosa and small pony. They named them Trigger, Shotgun and Pudin.
In the "Wizard of Oz," Ms. McDaniel told students, characters had to go along a yellow brick road through obstacles to the wizard, which was going to be able to grant their wishes to go home.
"I want you to build the yellow brick road around the track or of the track with everything in here. You have to make a plant together, work together and then we are going to invite the horses to go through it with us," Ms. McDaniel said.
Students used buckets, PCP pipe, balls and other items to create an obstacle course and then worked the horses through and past the obstacles.
Afterward, they were asked about their own obstacles -- what stands in their way of doing better in school and getting along with others.
When the students first came to the equine center, they were not talking with each other. Now they are talking and working together and encouraging each other, Ms. McDaniel said. "We've seen a big change in just two visits," she observed.
In the beginning, some students were scared or uncertain about working with the horses but were willing to try, Ms. Walker said. "That's what we want the kids to do all the time is try new things," she said.
The horses behave the same every time students work with them, so the students start to learn that they can predict what's going to happen when they do something with the horse, Ms. McDaniel said.
"Sometimes they start at the hardest point and try to take the horse through the hardest part. None of the horses will do it. We are trying to help them go to an easier point so that by the end, the horse will trust them enough to do the hard thing," Ms. McDaniel said.