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With leading equine-assisted psychotherapist Dr Andreas Liefooghe as part of National Anti-Bullying Week this November
This November, groups of London school children aged between 12-15 years old are working with shire horses in London’s Hyde Park, learning skills to contain and challenge bullying behaviours as part of National Anti-Bullying Week.
Many of the children have never come into contact with a horse before. During the weekly sessions, based on principles of EAL widely used in the USA, pupils experience guided observation of horse behaviour and learn to interact with horses through touch. They work in groups to lead horses along a trail, learning how to communicate with the animals in non-verbal ways, as well as learning team work skills.
The main aim of the programme is to teach teenagers cooperative group work and inclusion, rather than competition and exclusion.
“Humans can learn a lot from watching horses,” says Dr Andreas Liefooghe. “There is a tendency in a herd of horses to stick together, whereas in human groups, there tends to be fragmentation in sub-groups and cliques. The first task all students face is how to create a mixed human-horse herd. The horses are obviously different, and outsiders – so the group has to manage to integrate them despite their differences.
“Week by week, we build confidence in the group by setting them further challenges. For example, once there is cooperation we can introduce competition. But the students will see that this type of competition is very different in nature from the chaotic place where they first started to compete, driven by fear. So in many ways, we are teaching students through the horse work how to turn fear into work and, on the way, how to increase your tolerance for frustration”.
Teacher Ian Funnell from Westminster Academy says the project has been a positive experience for three groups of pupils taking part. “The activities with the horses have broken down some huge barriers for some of our students. They have had to think about and change their approaches to some tasks, understanding that their behaviour is a big influence on how the horses interact with them. It has been lovely to see some members of the group, who were initially very tentative about being near the horses – let alone touching them, being comfortable enough to work with them in an unfamiliar environment.“
Fourteen year-old Vivi from Westminster Academy says she has enjoyed working with the shire horses. “Horses can feel your fear and respond by running away. We were told that they were mirroring the fear many of us felt being around these big powerful animals. We learnt that by staying calm and gently touching them or standing beside them, we could negotiate and get them to move in the direction we wanted them to go.”
Sara Lom, Chief Executive of the Royal Parks Foundation, the charity for London’s eight Royal Parks, said: “Bullying touches many people’s lives and we are pleased to help young people learn the skills to tackle this challenging behaviour as part of our Learning Outside the Classroom programme. Through interaction with the shire horses, the children learn how to cooperate and compete safely with each other; equally importantly, they understand the need to challenge bullying behaviour if they see it happening to themselves or others.”