Internship Helps Shape Next Steps in HAI Career

February 23, 2021

This intern perspective was written by Rebecca Cobban.

After four years studying psychology at the University of Glasgow in my home country of Scotland, I decided to pursue a career in animal-assisted therapy, helping people through the wonderful world of animals. This is when I decided to google jobs in this field, and due to it being a leader of its kind, Green Chimneys came up. I immediately applied for their internship and in January of 2019, I began my journey at Green Chimneys.

I interned at Green Chimneys for two years, in the horse barn, and I enjoyed every second. By providing students who may normally struggle in a classroom setting with an outlet through opportunities with animals, Green Chimneys is setting students up for success. What interested me most was the ability for the farm to bring out a completely different side of the student that their teachers do not always witness. At the farm, the students have this amazing respect for the animals around them. They have extreme empathy which is a skill they may struggle to have elsewhere. The students are able to create healthy bonds with their favourite animal or their favourite farm staff, a bond that some students have never been able to create before. It truly is magical.

Helping students by partnering with horses.

I remember one time in particular during my internship when a student who was having a tough time turned a situation around just by being near a horse. Each week, as part of a program called Learn & Earn, I met with students one-on-one to tackle projects on the farm together. On this specific day, the student I was scheduled to meet with got into an argument with a staff member on his way to the horse barn. The student was upset and angry, and when I approached the student, he directed his anger towards me. I responded to the student in a calm manner and was able to redirect him towards one of our gentle giants, a Percheron Paint Cross. When the student rested his head onto the horse’s head it was an instant shift in character. Within seconds, the student went from having eyes filled with anger and ready to argue with anyone to being soft, gentle and empathetic. The change was instant.

Creating a plan, together.

This is not an unusual occurrence at Green Chimneys. Often the farm is a place where students regulate their emotions and return to their baseline. This reminds me of another time during my internship when a different student whom I had the pleasure of working with was really struggling. He was having a rough day, unable to participate in school, and it was time for our Learn & Earn session. After walking around after him for a few minutes, I invited him to come to the barn with me. There, we spent some time with one of our huge Clydesdales, Tex. We groomed him and chitchatted about horses and eventually the topic came back around to why he was upset. He talked to me between brush strokes and together we devised a plan for how he was going to return to class calmly. It was something about the presence of our big beautiful friend that helped the student work through his emotions and come to terms with why he was so upset and what he needed to do to process his emotions. Having to be mindful around these horses, so they are calm and don’t accidentally step on you with their gigantic feet, allows you to be present with your own mind and forget about past emotions. By the end of the 30 minute session, the student was laughing and smiling from ear to ear. He was then able to return to class in a better mindset and continue his day in class.

Weekly walks and talks with a beloved pony.

Times of crisis are not the only situations in which students benefit from the presence of our horses. I remember a student I spent time with in my first year as an intern who loved Bear, our German riding pony. We would split our Learn & Earn time so he always had time to walk Bear at the end. He would always work really hard so that he had time to spend with him. During our walks the student would talk to Bear about whatever was on his mind. Sometimes it was detailed stories about his week. Other times it was simply asking Bear how his day was and empathizing with how he was sure Bear would love to be in a pasture full of green grass. I always used to feel like it was a time where the student was really able to just talk without judgement and without feeling like he needed to give correct answers. Our students’ days are full of sessions with social workers, occupational therapists, speech therapists and teachers where they are always expected to perform to a certain standard and meet expectations. For this student, his time with Bear, who really did not have a lot to say back to him, was so important.

The benefits of student and animal connections are many.

These are just a couple of many specific occasions or sessions that stand out to me. A lot of the students at Green Chimneys form such amazing connections with specific animals that they maintain over weeks, months and even years. Some students make visiting their favourite animal part of their daily routine and it is an almost ritual to visit their stall/pasture with their staff. It is also a place for some friendly banter between students where they joke around about who the animal “belongs” to! They become so involved in the animal’s welfare and seem to have a sense of pride around their connection. For me, as a horse barn intern, I loved to build on their connections with their favourite horse by tailoring their Learn & Earn jobs around it. For example, a student who loves Walter would help me clean Walter’s stall, prepare his food, groom and exercise him. It really helped to deepen the connection and build their confidence in their ability.

The students taught me as much as I taught them.

Although the students benefit from their Learn & Earn sessions and riding classes, I also gained so much from my internship at Green Chimneys. Each day, I was presented with new challenges and I learned how to manage different situations and different characters, even each student would present differently depending on the day. I learned alongside the students, and they taught me just as much as I taught them. As cliché as it sounds, Green Chimneys helped me grow as a person. I grew in confidence massively, improved my equine knowledge, and became a better communicator both with my colleagues and students of all abilities. During my time at Green Chimneys, I successfully completed my Path Intl. Therapeutic Riding Certification and have decided to complete a Master’s in Social Work. Green Chimneys opened up many doors and helped me to decide to follow my dreams of a career in animal-assisted interactions and for that, Green Chimneys will always have a very special place in my heart.

Before completing her internship at Green Chimneys, Becky earned a PATH Intl. certification in riding instruction. Since returning home to Inverness, Scotland, Becky was accepted into two master of social work programs, the University of Denver and the University of Edinburgh. As Becky’s studies and career in HAI advance, we look forward to seeing all that she achieves.  

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