From the Books to the Barn: Internship Allows Knowledge and Hands-On Experience to Flourish

September 13, 2021

This intern perspective was written by Elizabeth Robertson.

Throughout my life, I have always loved animals — especially dogs and horses. I have been riding horses since I was 5 years old. I competed in horse shows until high school and then turned away from competition and began more leisurely riding for fun. Since childhood, I wanted to be a veterinarian, however, once I got to college my interests gravitated towards psychology and biology. I decided to major Neuroscience and Behavior. I still wanted to find a way to incorporate and work with animals while pursuing psychology, so I asked for advice from my teachers. They recommended I look up Green Chimneys. I was shocked by what a perfect match the internship position could be for me. I was drawn to the internship because I could work with horses in a professional setting, while also learning more about clinical work and animal-assisted interventions.

Starting out as an intern

Soon after I arrived at Green Chimneys, I began working with an Appaloosa Cross named Gandalf. To me, he looked like a white horse with cookie dough pieces all over him. Gandalf is a horse that comes into his stall every day to avoid constant sun exposure and requires sunscreen on his nose when he goes out for the day so he doesn’t get a sunburn. After getting to know him over the past few months, I would describe Gandalf as smart, adaptable, sensitive, and sweet. Through working with Gandalf, I have learned to trust the horse that I am working with and to treat them more as a teammate rather than a “vehicle” while riding.

Connecting with an remarkable equine

Gandalf is incredibly smart and sensitive to body language and moods. If I am getting anxious or stressed about something while working with him he can easily pick up on that energy and it will affect him as well. In order for us to work together effectively, I have learned to take a deep breath and then try again. Additionally, if we are working together and are succeeding at a task, I can see his confidence increase or vice versa, which helps us as a team to encourage each other in our own ways. I have had a few funny moments with Gandalf where we will be working on something together and get it right, get excited about getting it right, both start overthinking it, and then lose focus and have to start over. Though this could be seen as frustrating, it is an incredible moment for me because it reminds me that we are a team. During some riding classes, I help lead the horses and it is amazing to see how adaptable Gandalf is to the student that is riding. If a student needs him to go slower, he is able to do that. If a student is pushing him to move forward, he is also able to do that. I appreciate his adaptability and sensitivity to his human partners. Like working with students, the horses also have to learn to trust you, which can take time.

From studying science to working directly with children

Through my neuroscience-based academic background, it was incredible to get a hands-on look at situations that I had only read about in textbooks. In textbooks, everything seems so black and white, so to speak. During college, I studied hard and learned as much as I could, through words on paper. However, the experience working one-to-one with so many students at Green Chimneys completely changed my previous understanding of kids with special needs. Many students needed completely different approaches than expected, teaching me to become increasingly flexible with my expectations. Some students may have similar diagnoses, yet are likely to be very different from one another in personality, strengths, challenges, and life experiences. Many of the students I worked with one-on-one during my Learn & Earn sessions eventually opened up about their experiences, what they are currently working on, and what they are learning about themselves and others. Being able to reference my academic background helped me to further understand how these students were perceiving certain situations and learning through their experiences of the world, even if my perception was different. My “textbook knowledge” helped me broaden my understanding and ultimately, increase my empathy and capacity to learn from and alongside these students. 

Initial internship hopes and career next steps

Before starting the internship in January of 2021, I was hoping to learn more about how working with animals can benefit both students and staff. I was curious how having a farm on campus was utilized among the Green Chimneys community. In addition, I hadn’t worked with students with special needs before and was excited to get the chance to get to know these students on both a professional and personal level as their Learn and Earn supervisor. I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and working with students with special needs has certainly furthered this interest. Eventually, I would love to be a licensed therapist as well as conduct research on risk and resilience in youth, especially those with special needs or with underserved or at-risk youth. So many of the students I work with at Green Chimneys display such a high level of resilience every day. I would love to continue to work with students with special needs in the future, as I have learned so much from them and continue to each day. All I hope to do throughout my life is to keep learning from people through listening to them and to their stories.

Pursuing a path in psychology that incorporates HAI

Once I get comfortable with clinical work and research, I hope to incorporate animals into my work as a Clinical Psychologist. As I have seen at Green Chimneys through observing sessions with social workers or support staff taking a walk with a student having a tough time, animals can serve as an incredible distraction from stressors. During therapy sessions in the future, I would love to provide people with animal interactions, as seen on the farm, or a nature walk, such as those that take place here on Tom’s Trail, in order to reduce the potential stress and pressures of being in a “typical” therapy setting. I am considering research positions as my next step in my career path and will always value my time with Green Chimneys. Working with these incredible students and Gandalf has been an amazing journey of self-discovery and has inspired me to keep working towards my goal of becoming a Clinical Psychologist who utilizes animal-assisted and nature-based interactions!

The Henry J. and Erna D. Leir Global Internship Program at Green Chimneys creates meaningful opportunities for Elizabeth and others to gain real-life experience in a therapeutic education setting. Originally from Lynchburg, Virginia, Elizabeth earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Behavior from Vassar College in nearby Dutchess County, New York. Throughout her time at Green Chimneys, Elizabeth was able to apply knowledge while facilitating riding classes and animal-assisted activities that benefit children with special needs. In the fall, Elizabeth will begin a research-focused internship offered by the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection.

The Henry J. and Erna D. Leir Global Internship Program is part of The Sam and Myra Ross Institute at Green Chimneys. As an immersive internship program steeped in human-animal interaction and nature-based practices, Leir Interns are drawn from across the globe. A total of seven tracks allow Leir Interns to deepen experience in specific areas including equines, wildlife, farm animals, gardening, and more. With decades of support from the Leir Foundation, Green Chimneys is proud to support the future of HAI. If you’re looking to build a career in nature-based programming, learn more about this program today