East Students Saddle Up for a New Equine Program

A few months ago, East Upper School junior Lewis Ingram was not keen on the idea of walking a horse.  But a new equine program has allowed him to overcome his fears this fall at the EquiCenter.  Two weeks into the eight-week program, Ingram, who has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak, was walking and leading a horse with the use of his communication device.
East student leading horse with adult support“This experience is bringing students out of their comfort zone, which is so valuable,” said Joanne Bringley, a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom at East. “They are establishing relationships with these horses and are feeling the healing in that transaction.”
The equine program was made possible through a generous gift from Richard Handler '83, a member of the University of Rochester Board of Trustees, that supports East’s new Soaring Eagles Fund. The community-supported fund, created in the beginning of the second year of the University of Rochester serving as the educational partnership organization (EPO) for East, aims to help build connections with the community and expand experiences for scholars through new initiatives like the equine program.
East scholars and teachersThe 90 minutes per week that Ingram and his classmates spend working directly with horses at the EquiCenter is known as therapeutic equestrian programming (or equine-assisted activities), which the EquiCenter began offering in 2005 to people with disabilities, at-risk youth, and their families in Mendon.    
The goal, according to Bringley, is not necessarily to have East students riding the horses, though there is always the possibility to ride based on the students’ abilities. Instead, the focus is to have students build relationships with horses, like Macaroni and Cheese (known as “Mac”) and Buddy—two of the 20-plus horses that East students are working with every Tuesday morning this fall at the EquiCenter. They are also learning about an entirely new culture that they may never otherwise be exposed to outside of school.
East student walking horse with assistance from adultThe equine program also incorporates some skill building. For example, students learn individual responsibility, relationship and communication skills, and gain an appreciation for teamwork, self-discipline and trust. In addition to establishing relationships and trust with the horses, the program incorporates an educational component where students are exposed to new vocabulary that they then bring back to the classroom.
Research shows that animals have the innate ability to improve the moods of individuals. For children with special needs, horses play an incredibly important role and are effective therapy animals. Equine therapy can help with sensory issues and help connect a child to the horse in a unique way while helping them with a variety of conditions or disabilities. This interaction with horses, whether it’s riding, grooming, touching and controlling the horse, or just being near the corral watching, has many therapeutic benefits for students with disabilities and can help elevate a mood in a calming environment.
Siuley Cruz, a blind student in Bringley’s class, will touch the horses’ soft coats and brush and groom them endlessly because it is such a soothing sensory experience for her. “It’s so exciting to watch her enjoy this experience along with the rest of us,” Bringley explained. 
While the program will conclude mid-November, Bringley hopes to offer it again in the spring.
“My students are learning about equestrian equipment and how to care for these therapy horses,” added Bringley. “The EquiCenter is a magical, wonderful place, and this is just the beginning of the bonds formed and relationships established with these gorgeous therapeutic horses that can become powerful and healing.” 

Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
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Tags: East, East Upper and Lower Schools, equine program, Soaring Eagles Fund