Laramie, WY (AP) — It takes no small amount of courage to approach a 1,000-pound animal and offer to lead it with a rope.
But the students in Laramie High School's interpersonal communication class did just that, taking turns guiding horses around the Ark Regional Services Equestrian Arena.
They showed their understanding of the animals by walking beside them, within a horse's range of vision. They talked in low voices and maintained a steady pace, reported the Laramie Boomerang.
"We've learned about respect and what you should do respecting the horses, and how they'll show us respect," LHS junior Kiersten Bands said.
Sophomore Anistyn Holt said a black horse named Jet is one of her favorites and one she recommends for others.
"He has the tendency to calm kids down if they're angry or upset," she said.
There are 17 horses in the Ark program, and this semester, they've been working with students in Albany County School District No. 1 for the first time.
More than 50 students from LHS, Laramie Junior High School, Indian Paintbrush Elementary and Transition Academy have been taking part in an equine-assisted learning curriculum called Cowboy Poetry. Students don't ride the horses but instead work from the ground.
Ami Egge, vice president of community resources for Ark, said the curriculum uses horses to teach academic skills, character traits and social skills.
"It ties all of that together using the horses as feedback," she said.
For example, a student can't effectively work with a horse if he or she is nervous or wound up.
"To get the result you want, you've got to bring yourself to the level to where the horse will respond," she said. "That's been really great for the kids to experience."
Teacher Angie Hampton and paraprofessional Judy Roehrkasse said they've seen students in their interpersonal communication class show compassion, teach their peers and become more expressive since they started working with the horses.
Students also learn skills like roping and knot-tying, and nobody turns down a chance to brush the horses.
"People are coming out of their shells," Roehrkasse said.
Some students without prior horse experience were afraid or didn't know what to expect, but she's watched them gain confidence.
"You see them helping each other, where they really haven't done that before," she said.
The Ark Equestrian Center has traditionally offered hippotherapy, therapeutic riding and stable management classes to people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Hippotherapy is therapy provided with the help of equine movement.
The center recently organized a fundraiser to install lighting that will allow it to expand its hours of operation.
Tammy Aumiller, who teaches at Transition Academy, said students apply lessons from the arena to classroom discussions.
"This week, we're learning about personal space and reading body language," she said. "We talked about how we do that with each other, but then it was brought up with the horses."
Timmy Frazier, a student at Transition Academy, said he's learned how to be safe around horses by being alert and reading their behavior.
"If I get scared, they get scared too," he said.
The center is working to expand its services and include more community partners, Egge said.
"This is such a great resource," she said. "We have the horses, we have the facility and we were just ready to do more."
As she and Equestrian Center Coordinator Ed Ulrich researched equine-assisted learning, they saw potential for working with students, veterans and other community members.
"There's a lot we can do," she said. "We're just getting our feet wet with the schools."