When is an exercise not an exercise? When you are having fun — that’s when.
Shauna Walters, now 10, didn’t really like exercise or horses before she met Harley, but a few sessions into their training together, Shauna was right into it.
And before long she could do close to 400 core-strengthening exercises in a one-hour ride with Harley.
Mind you getting on the back of a big animal such as a horse isn’t that easy.
Shauna was super reluctant in the beginning, especially fearful when they had to go up and then — “yuk” — down the hill again.
But now, two years into her training with Harley, Shauna goes up and down hills perfectly balanced and confident in her saddle.
And a lot of times when Shauna is taking her lessons she sings to Harley, sometimes in French, having been a French Immersion student for the first four years of her schooling.
Shauna is mildly autistic and even though she had a horse at home before she met Harley, she didn’t like horses at all before starting to work with Harley and her owner Jane Folka, a Cartier Certified Equine Assisted Learning specialist who runs the Horse M-Powered, equine-assisted learning program in Williams Lake.
“A program is designed to meet the needs of each individual with their personal strengths and weaknesses in mind,” Folka says.
To build her confidence, Folka started Shauna out slowly, having her work with Harley on the ground in the round pen walking with Harley on and off the lead rope.
“She is understanding silent communication and how to give and receive respect which is very important with a horse,” Folka says.
After the first few weeks of working with Harley three times a week on the ground, Shauna was up in the saddle and learning how to use leg aids to move her sideways, in a circle or forward and backward.
“She built her confidence very quickly,” Folka says.
Some of the exercises Shauna does while riding Harley involve core strengthening activities such as putting her arms out to the side and rotating them from the shoulder, or twisting her arms from side to side at the waist or using her legs and the stirrups to stand up and sit down again in the saddle.
“Her core is very strong,” Folka says.
Folka took her initial training in equine assisted learning at the Cartier Equine Learning Centre in Saskatchewan and also studied the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association program to work with individuals with physical, mental and emotional challenges.
Folka works with three well-trained horses.
Harley is a 19-year-old quarter horse who has been a member of Folka’s family since she was the age of two and gave Folka’s daughters successful show careers before becoming her top training horse.
Harley’s 15-year-old half-brother Turbo, who has been a show horse, lesson horse and enjoyable trail riding horse is Folka’s second training horse.
A third horse, is 19-year-old Money, a quarter horse who is on loan to the program by close friend and assistant in training Tammy Schellenberg.
All three horses were bred and raised by Ingrid Plummer of Big Lake then trained by Folka for the program.
“The trainability and sweet, kind nature of these horses is a testament to a very successful breeding program carried out by Ingrid Plummer,” Folka says. “They are definitely the teachers and I am the facilitator.”
Folka says the equine-assisted learning program meets the needs of people from many walks of life; women who have been abused; family relations enhancement; behavioural development; substance abuse treatment; children with challenging learning disabilities and autism; or just to help individuals build self-awareness, relaxation, and stress relief.
The program is designed to help participants to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, promote emotional growth and development, develop teamwork skills, build confidence and self-esteem, personal work ethics, responsibility, appropriate assertiveness, communication skills and healthy relationships.
“Leadership skills are huge with this program,” Folka says.
In one exercise she will have two children work together to lead a horse. The child holding the lead rope will be blindfolded and the child without the blindfold will guide both the horse and the blindfolded child.
Folka says students who come to the program angry and easily frustrated soon learn they need to remain calm around a horse to find success with their exercise.
In the wild she says horses are preyed upon by carnivores so they have adapted to be very aware of the presence of danger.
“A horse can detect the rapid heartbeat of an attacker from 50 yards away so if you are angry or frustrated or afraid they will sense those emotions,” Folka says.
If a student is afraid the horse is not sure if there is also something in their environment they should be afraid of as well, Folka explains.
On the theory side Folka says students learn to take a horse’s temperature, about deworming and vaccination, how to clean a stall, proper feeding, and brushing.
“Nutrition is related back to the learner’s own nutrition and the simple act of brushing a horse promotes bonding,” Folka says.
On the practical side students start out learning how to halter and bridal a horse using a dummy horse.
It may take several attempts before a student learns how to tie the lead rope to a hitching post but when they finally get it, she says they are elated and feel empowered.
Folka says she doesn’t start the equine assisted learning program with children until they are about age eight when they have the ability to understand and focus on the exercises, but therapeutic riding can start as early as age five.
“My two passions in life are children and horses; my heart and soul is working with children with challenges,” says Folka who is wrapping up the Child Development Centre’s Horsing Around summer camp at the Williams Lake Trail Rider’s Arena this week but continues her regular one-on-one and small group sessions with children through to about mid-October.
Folka says the program for autistic children includes spending some of their time together in social activities in the community such as going for a picnic and playing mini-golf, taking in the annual Art Walk, going to Scout Island or a park to make new friends and try new activities, or volunteering to make up Good Samaritan gift boxes at Christmas time.
The children are involved in planning the outings which helps to build their confidence in different social settings, Folka explains.
Folka can be contacted at 250-398-0557 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.