Student and Rescued Mule Help Each OtherNovember 8, 2018
By the age of eight, Britt had lived on several New England farms before ending up at a New Hampshire-based rescue. Having gone through so much as a young pony mule, Britt wasn’t accustomed to structure. Her herd changed with each rehoming and she didn’t know what was expected of her. She developed fears. Loud noises scared her, the unexpected made her anxious. It was hard for her to assimilate to new situations – causing some challenging behaviors.
In 2013, Britt officially joined the Green Chimneys family. With the patience of the staff, she slowly started coming out of her shell and began to seek attention in positive ways from her handlers and caretakers. Britt quickly learned the feeding schedule and developed a habit of braying loudly right on time when more hay was needed. With ample opportunity to become part of her Green Chimneys herd, Britt made friends, developing strong bonds with Mac the Clydesdale and Spadi the Icelandic pony.
Today Britt still has some anxieties. She is wary of mechanical sounds and is hesitant to let others into her space right away. But Britt has learned that no one here will harm her and her story, with all its challenges, is quite relatable.
To our students, many of whom struggle with social, emotional and behavioral issues, Britt is a living being who has felt insecure, unsafe and alone. Much like them.
Our equine experts partner with Britt in educational programs for Green Chimneys School. You may find her participating in riding class with students, in an after-school horsemanship club or as the subject of study in a vocational education class. Britt is also a great partner in therapy sessions with our students.
One Student’s Experience
Such is the case for 11-year-old Luca. Not unlike Britt, some of Luca’s behaviors used to push people away. Emotional regulation and quick escalation were part of the issues he contended with. At his previous school, he’d been labeled by some as a “bad kid.” As a self-aware boy, Luca felt the effects of such stigmatization, and began to believe the label may be true.
Having grown comfortable with Mac the Clydesdale during weekly therapy sessions, Luca verbalized that it was time for a challenge. After being introduced to Britt through his riding class, Luca chose her because he believed she was stubborn and likely difficult to work with. Luca’s social worker Tara Doran began strategizing with Therapeutic Riding Instructor Aimee O’Brien on how sessions with Britt could be beneficial for both child and mule.
Creating A New Herd
The change in equine partners heightened Luca’s emotional state during therapy sessions, allowing him to practice coping skills while escalated. During an initial exercise, Britt was free to roam the riding arena. As Luca, Tara and Aimee stood nearby observing her behaviors, they informally created a “herd.” Aimee explained how Britt will look to join the herd but needs to ask appropriately. Britt meandered to each of them, nibbling for attention. Luca immediately made a connection that he sometimes seeks attention by acting out in class with peers which leads to his needs not being met. As Britt stood with the group quietly, no longer nibbling, Luca recognized it was the right time to engage with praise or gentle scratching. As Aimee explained how horses will ask to join a herd by gravitating towards the member they feel most comfortable with, Britt came to stand quietly behind Luca resting her muzzle at his side.
“Luca gained her trust by being respectful, kind and calm,” says Aimee. “He was able to see the calm and gentle side of Britt because he was respectful of her space and channeled calmness in himself.” Regular sessions continue these opportunities to “read” each other. For example, by anticipating Britt’s triggers during walks throughout campus, Luca can practice general emotional regulation skills, deep breathing, and positive self-talk.
Connecting and Accepting
Luca’s self-esteem is growing and he’s drawn parallels between Britt and himself since their very first session. With the support of Green Chimneys staff, a carefully executed Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and therapy, Luca is beginning to shed labels. He’s learned that Britt’s labels are inaccurate, too. He accepts her. He understands that she works/thinks a little differently than some of the other horses. Feeling safe at Green Chimneys, Luca is trusting of staff, revealing the smart, kind, funny, and emotionally intelligent boy he is. And thanks to this progress, he’s helping Britt feel safe and comfortable, too.