SINGAPORE: An organisation which offers horse therapy has doubled its capacity, as more schools look to its services to help improve the social and emotional well-being of students.
The programme, called Equine-assisted Learning (EQUAL), involves playing with and grooming horses. There are now 400 spaces available on the programme, which is run by non-profit organisation EQUAL-ARK.
Reuben Wan, 15, is one of those who has benefited from the programme. Reuben, who is mildly autistic, underwent the four-month programme last year. He was previously afraid but now enjoys being around horses.
Reuben grooming a horse at EQUAL-ARK. (Photo: Lim Jia Qi)
"The activity I like most is horseplay. Because we get to learn the behaviour of a horse and how we can lead a horse. It's very fun," said Reuben, who is a student at Spectra Secondary School.
The programme has not just helped with his fear of horses. Reuben's father, Mr Billy Wan, has seen significant changes in his son's behaviour. This includes Reuben being more expressive with his feelings.
Reuben with his father, Mr Billy Wan. (Photo: Lim Jia Qi)
"By learning the cues of how the horse reacts to his touch, eventually some of (Reuben's) reaction was that he's able to read our expressions sometimes at home, a lot more than before. He walks up to (his mum) more these days to give her a hug when Mummy's very tired or she's upset. Things like that," Mr Wan added.
Spectra Secondary, a specialised Normal (Technical) school, is one of several schools that has recently joined the bandwagon in offering horsemanship classes to its students. The programme is part of the curriculum for its Secondary Two students.
Ms Melissa Tan, who is a Board Member of EQUAL-ARK, said having activities with horses provides a different learning experience for the students.
Ms Melissa Tan, Board Member of EQUAL-ARK. (Photo: Lim Jia Qi)
"I think a big segment of children and students need a different type of learning - experiential learning. We design activities around the horses. It could be horsemanship and horseplay. These activities would bring out that positive behaviour in the student," said Ms Tan, who was a team leader for the programme in 2011.
She added that 15 schools have expressed an interest in joining the programme and they have been put on a waiting list. They include secondary schools such as Northland, CHIJ Katong Convent and Woodlands Ring.
Northlight School, a specialised secondary school for those who have failed the Primary School Leaving Examination, also offers an equestrian programme for its students, which is offered to all Year 1 students at the school.
Northlight teacher Nicholas Pinto said the response from students and parents has been very positive - about 800 Northlight students have gone through the programme since 2011.
WATCH: Saddle up with our reporter Lim Jia Qi as she finds out about the benefits of #HorseTherapy for school students.Posted by 938LIVE on Wednesday, 3 February 2016
"In the EQUAL environment, the students feel that the trainers are more like friends. The authoritarian figure is kind of like played down and they are able to form friendships with the trainers as well as the horses. Implicitly, life skills and core values and teachings are embedded in the lessons through game play," said Mr Pinto.
The EQUAL programme also caters to at-risk youth, as well as those with special needs.
A NEW PROGRAMME FOR VULNERABLE YOUTHS
With the positive response that it has had, EQUAL-ARK will launch an after-school programme next month to help vulnerable teenagers stay on track.
About 30 youths from Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home and voluntary welfare organisation aLife will be taking part. In addition to interaction with horses, the students will receive tuition and counselling.
Programme Director Desmond Wong pointed to the absence of youth intervention programmes that are pre-emptive.
"We want to address the issue before it actually happens, before they drop out of the community, or if they are really in a home. We want to give them a community where they can be engaged and remain in the community and not exit it," Mr Wong added.
Funded by Tote Board, the programme could yet see more youths benefiting from being around their equine partners.