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Ty Cahoon, 16, rides his horse as he throws his lasso while practicing behind the Equine Academy in Cranston, Alberta . Equine Academy is not only a pruning ground for up and coming rodeo professions but also therapeutic center for children with developmental disabilities. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ty Cahoon, 16, rides his horse as he throws his lasso while practicing behind the Equine Academy in Cranston, Alberta . Equine Academy is not only a pruning ground for up and coming rodeo professions but also therapeutic center for children with developmental disabilities. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

More than horseplay: rodeo school helps students with special needs Add to ...

Robin Nelson has seen her 12-year-old grandson smile fewer than a dozen times. Kourt, who has been diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, wears a winter coat even indoors. It helps him avoid physical or social contact with another person.

So it was a shock when Ms. Nelson entered the barn at the Westwind Rodeo Academy, where Kourt was taking part in an equine therapy program, and saw him gently grooming a chestnut-brown horse with a comb, a big, easy grin stretched across his face. She broke down in tears.

“It was nice to see that gentleness in him,” she said. “I can’t tell anyone honestly if he loves me, but the smile he gave that horse, it was sincere.”

When it first opened in 2007, Westwind was an elite training facility, the horses a competitive tool. The academy attracted top high-school competitors from all over the prairies to Cardston, a Mormon ranching community 20 kilometres north of the Montana border that boasts such rodeo legends as Herman Linder and Bill Reeder.

But the district struggled to win approval for a rodeo-themed curriculum that would earn credits for students and funding for the program.

In 2009, Shellee Shaw, the academy’s director, had the idea to switch the emphasis from competition to therapy. There are more than 300 students in this school division of 4,000 who have special needs, ranging from severe autism to minor speech impediments, which equine therapy can sometimes help.

It was a bold shift for the academy and for Ms. Shaw, a former goat-tying and barrel-racing champion. “I had to let go of that,” she said. “Now I’m passionate about how the horse is good for you, good for your soul, instead of just a tool to win.”

The competitive part of the program remains, but it happens after school. During the day, students from the Westwind School Division with behavioural problems, learning and physical disabilities groom the horses, lead them around the barn and sometimes ride bareback.

The division is believed to be the only one in Canada to run its own competitive rodeo and horse therapy program.

Some students come for a single six-week session; others, like Kourt, have been attending for years. In just over two years, more than 100 students have participated in the program, and teachers and councillors say it improves their mood and boosts their confidence.

“It probably is the most effective thing that I’ve done with kids,” said Lanny Smith, a councillor at Cardston Elementary School.

Animal therapies met great skepticism from the scientific community in the 1960s, when researchers began using dogs to encourage children with autism to communicate. Evidence for the practice soon emerged through physiological measures – heart rates, blood pressure and stress hormone levels are reduced by the presence of a friendly and familiar animal.

Researchers believe these benefits are derived from the unconditional emotional support that animals provide, according to Stanley Coren, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. “In addition to that, there are certain advantages to interactions with a horse in that it involves full body movement, and we do know that activity in and of itself is beneficial,” he said.

For many students, learning to handle a large, intimidating horse means tackling fears and insecurities.

Hercules, a retired roping horse, is a favourite. He’s dusty white, a small but powerful sprinter with a Napoleon complex. Westwind bought him in 2008 for the rodeo athletes but, when the therapy classes ran short on horses, he turned out to be a natural. The therapy students have dropped bouncy balls on his head, hugged his neck for an hour straight, and covered him in sparkles. Herc is never bothered.

“He found his calling,” Ms. Shaw said.

Mr. Smith says he’s seen students with serious behavioural problems – anger, agitation, known for screaming at their teachers and assaulting classmates – become uncharacteristically calm when they enter the barn. Initially, Mr. Smith and the equine specialists at Westwind didn’t intend to let the kids in therapy ride the horses – largely for insurance and safety purposes – but they soon saw that their concerns were unfounded.

“When the kids are laying on the back of the horse they’re getting warmth and security, it’s solid,” he said. “And the horse isn’t asking for anything back. You don’t have to clean your room first, or do your homework.”

After school, calf roping, barrel racing, goat tying and shoot dogging classes begin. In this part of Alberta, where ranching is a major industry, many students are pursuing athletic scholarships to American universities. Natalie Bevans, 17, a top-ranked goat-tying athlete, is one of them. The academy’s former model, which integrated rodeo and academic classes throughout the school day, would have been a better fit for her busy schedule – but she’s happy to see special-needs students at the barn.

“There’s always something you can learn from horses,” she said.

The grant money that helped to establish Westwind ran out this month. To help cover costs, rodeo students pay about $1,200 in tuition and the school district spends about $91,000 a year on the therapy program.

As Kourt approaches his teenage years, Ms. Nelson has begun investigating private riding lessons to help him adjust. They will stretch her financially, but she feels the classes would be money well spent.

“I’m so happy that he found something that he likes so much,” she said.

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