At the beginning of April, 11-year-old Anecya Sutton had never touched a horse, and the idea of actually riding one was daunting.Six weeks later, Anecya says the fear is gone, and she loves her trips to the Wölffer Estate Stables with her fellow classmates, and hopes to be able to continue riding in the future.
Anecya is one of eight girls, all fifth-graders from Southampton Intermediate School, who have been participating in an equine-facilitated learning program, where students are taught a series of life skills by working with horses, through the Center for Therapeutic Riding of the East End at Wölffer Estate. Next year, the Southampton School District is hoping to keep the six-week program, which is being used as a method of increasing self-esteem and confidence in pre-teen girls, and hopes to be able to offer more than one session of the program.
“It is really fun, and it is a good experience,” Anecya said in an interview at the school last week. “It has helped me a lot—and I got my grades up.”
Every Monday since April 29, the eight girls—Anecya, Katherine Ordenez, Johanna Rishell, Tonoa Pender, Addi Perry, Kiarra Fuentes, Cristian Castro, and Camille Franklin—would take a bus to the stable with their counselor, Valerie Schroeder, for a two-hour lesson. The lessons are designed to teach social, life, work, and academic skills, as well as how to deal with new situations.
Each week, the girls would spend the first part of the lesson learning about the horses, and the lesson would then be connected to the New York State Common Core Learning Standards, which is a consistent set of expectations the state has adopted for all students. Through the program, the students learned about the history and biology of the horses, and, in addition to learning how to care for the animals, the lessons had connections to biology, math and history. After their work is completed, the girls get to ride the horses.
The girls were selected for the program by the administration, and were hand-picked because of their potential to be leaders and in the classroom. “We identified some girls who we thought had great potential as leaders and could benefit from the program, and eventually pay it forward,” said Sarah Hogg, a social worker at the intermediate school.
According to Ms. Schroeder, a fifth grade teacher at the school who specializes in therapy techniques using animals, the program has had a real impact on the girls who were selected to participate. After week three, she said, she started seeing a difference in the girls’ attitude, posture and academic performance. “A couple of them were very shy, and we wanted them to have a stronger voice,” she said. “They have the stronger voice now, and they learn skills like that when they are leading a horse.”
In order to stay in the program, each of the girls had to maintain all of their grades and keep up with their schoolwork. As a result, the girls learned they were not allowed to even go to the stables if they were not up to date in class—and in seven out of eight cases, the girls’ grades improved. Anecya shared that her science grade skyrocketed from failing to 90 percent.
Now, district officials are trying to figure out what is next for the program. Ms. Schroeder, who proposed that the program be brought to the district, said she hopes to be able to run two six-week courses next year so that more students can participate. The program, which is free for the district and run by Karen Bocksel, managing director for CTREE, would be expanded for more students in the district to participate.
On Monday, the girls graduated from the program in a ceremony at the stables. At the event, the girls had the chance to teach Southampton Intermediate School Principal Timothy Frazier some of the things they learned about riding a horse.
Last week, Mr. Frazier said he is happy the program came to the school, adding that he has been approached by several students who want to participate in the future.
“I cannot say enough about the Wölffer Estate organization,” he said last week. “They have over 120 acres in the middle of the Hamptons—a huge piece of real estate—and they are trying to use it in a bunch of different ways to bring opportunities to all kinds of people in the community.”