JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Though she is the main instructor at Durango School Districtís Phoenix Program, Hallie Whitney isnít the only one doing the teaching. Most recently, Whitney has been on a mission to help her students learn from horses.
The Phoenix Program, a voluntary program for students who have been expelled from district schools, has teamed up with students and educators from Big Picture High School to organize a fundraiser that would allow both schools to incorporate equine-assisted learning into their curriculum multiple times during the semester. The unique hands-on experience has the potential to help students overcome social, emotional and academic barriers in a manner not possible in the classroom, educators said.
Whitney already has taken her students on two trips to the Therapeutic Experiences ranch on Florida Mesa, which specializes in equine-assisted learning and equine-assisted psychotherapy.
After the first trip, the students were ďbuzzing, they were so excited,Ē Whitney said.
She estimated that each equine learning session costs $30 to $50 per student. The goal of the fundraiser, which will be a drawing held Saturday, is to raise enough money to send about 15 Big Picture and Phoenix students to six to eight sessions at Therapeutic Experiences.
The majority of each session isnít spent riding horses. Instead, students move through activities such as learning how to bridle the animals, working together to move the horses through obstacle courses or observing the animalsí distinct mannerisms.
Working with horses provides a different avenue for students to address and overcome social and emotional issues, Whitney said.
In the Therapeutic Experiences setting, horses become a metaphor for any experience or challenge outside a studentís comfort zone, Whitney and Kim Hardesty, a certified equine specialist with Therapeutic Experiences, said.
ďEverything we talked about with horses directly parallels with our own lives,Ē Whitney said. In a school setting, for example, overcoming a fear or anxiety of horses can translate to overcoming barriers in math or another subject.
Successfully working through various tasks with the horses helps empower students, Whitney said. When students feel empowered, they realize they have the ability to choose their own path, to voice their opinions and to advocate for themselves, she said.
Dreher Robertson, an adviser at Big Picture, said he hopes the equine-assisted learning will provide his students a better way to communicate about and deal with problems that might be going on in their personal lives.
Many students also better retain information they learn through hands-on experiences, Hardesty and Whitney said.
Hardesty tries to tie her activities into school curriculum.
During one activity, students observed horses and made guesses about which ones were tallest and heaviest. Then they took to tape measures and scales to verify their guesses. The lesson addressed concepts such as judgement, math and information processing in different parts of the brain, Hardesty said.
Whitney said she has ideas for photography, communication and writing assignments that could integrate into future equine learning experiences.
The Irish Embassy Pub will host the drawing Saturday and will donate 5 percent of the profits made at its downstairs bar during the drawing hours.