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FREETOWN, P.E.I. - The unseasonably cold November wind whipped across the fields outside Venture Stables.
Two horses trotted to the fence to watch the car turn in the laneway. They looked serene despite the stiff breeze that sent their manes and tails sailing.
Inside the barn, the door was barely open in order to keep the weather out.
An aisle flanked by stalls ended with a doorway to the arena. The first stall held chickens protected by a vocal rooster. Next to them were bunnies, then a pony. Across the aisle was a herd of goats.
The cold air smelled like fresh hay.
Run by Jasmine and Marc Bastarache, Venture Stables recently hosted a four-day facilitator certification program for eight future Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) facilitators.
EAL is used to help individuals and groups learn to work through challenges by listening to verbal and non-verbal communication.
“There doesn’t seem to be an application that it doesn’t fit,” said Gayle Cartier, the program’s creator.
“We deal with everything from alternative learning children, IQs under 50 with all the letters, right up to leadership development and corporate leadership and it goes the gamut.”
Cartier certified the EAL curriculum in 2006 and it’s been the subject of several studies from Canadian universities. With 40 years of experience as a riding instructor in northern Saskatchewan, she has been working with EAL across the country for 16 years.
At Venture Stables, theory lessons in the morning were followed by hands-on learning in the afternoons with clients.
Student facilitators learn how to adjust the curriculum to the learner, said Cartier.
“It involves the horses in understanding self as part of a team,” she said. “It’s about problem solving, understanding about sharing ideas and what happens when we actually come together sharing ideas to make the ultimate idea.”
Heather Blouin, a student facilitators, has been around horses all her life and is already convinced of the benefits they provide.
“The one thing I’m really taking from here is how much we need to turn to the horse as the teacher and that we are merely the facilitators,” said Blouin.
The exercise was called “at the end of your rope” and the purpose is to help people become aware of how they communicate with each other and with the horse.
In the arena, the sandy floor was divided by rails and dotted with pylons.
Teams of two humans, a horse and a facilitator will lead their horse through the short courses.
The rules are simple:
Only one hand on the lead rope.
No loops of rope laying on the ground.
No stepping over the rails.
No knocking over pylons or markers.
I was teamed up with fellow volunteer Leona Conrick and Peyton, a beautiful black and white mount with large, sturdy joints that suggested some draft horse in her family tree.
Conrick and I attached our ropes under Peyton’s halter and got to work coaxing the steady horse to weave her way through a row of pylons and around a barrel.
It was clear something wasn’t going well when Peyton stopped and knocked over a blue plastic barrel.
I said we should keep going, using the downed barrel as if it was upright and soon we were all in motion again.
Soon enough, Cartier stopped us.
Peyton was half outside the rails, the barrel was down and there were clothespins everywhere, doled out by the facilitator as “reminders” of the rules we had broken.
Conrick and I looked at each other. Peyton looked at us from beneath the clothespins in her mane.
After a few key questions from the facilitator, I could see what I had done wrong – I had barged ahead without waiting to listen to the rest of my team.
What happened at the barrel is what Cartier calls “multi-messaging”.
“They end up just stopping or waiting, rather than moving forward. Or they’ll step outside the rails, because the people aren’t paying attention.”
Check and check.
“As facilitators, we’re very carefully watching the body language of the horses and keying-in on that to help the teams understand how they’re working together,” said Cartier.
“It brings a dynamic into it that’s way bigger than just team building. It becomes an interaction with an animal that has no agenda except to react to your instructions.”