A different kind of classroom
By CARRIE OLSON
EAGLE GROVE – After picking up the book “The Way I See It” by Dr. Temple Grandin – a book about a woman’s autism and her experience bonding with animals – Gary Groves decided something.
He wanted to help children with autism by opening his Eagle Grove horse farm to them.
“I also have friends who have a grandson who is autistic,” he said. “There was some discussion going on about helping him with horses.”
So Groves started to research, finding stories and accounts of the bonding between horses and children.
“Maybe there was something I could do,” he said.
He reached out to retired teachers Gayle Olson, Judy Hartnett, Kathy Theobald and Deb Peterson.
“I talked with them, to see if we could do this as a team,” Groves said. “I just provide the facility for the horses. The teachers have the teaching plans and expertise for the program.”
The teachers talked to the Webster City Schools Superintendent Mike Sherwood who backed the idea.
It was decided that four students with special needs from Sunset Heights Elementary School would be involved in the program – the teachers wanted one-on-one time with the children.
Groves said he had rules, though.
“I wanted this to be for kids between certain ages, before they went into the middle school,” he said. “Another rule was that parents had to be involved.”
He said that he felt that if parents weren’t involved, it wouldn’t be as effective.
So every Friday, since November, parents and their children have been picked up by a school van and brought to the farm, for horse camp.
Groves has five horses – four are for riding and one is an Amish horse.
It started out slow. The first day, Groves took the group out on a ride around his farm.
The second time there, the children spent time with the horses. The third was a different kind of experience.
The children were assigned their own horse during their time at the farm. The crew decided it wanted the horses to pick the children.
Groves said that a buckskin horse, the alpha of the bunch, was brought into a pen where the children were sitting.
“He ran to a boy, sniffed him, and stayed with him,” he said. “I thought, ‘that’s nice.’ I put him back. We brought him into the pen, and again, he went straight back to the boy. I brought him to another kid, and he wanted to go back to the boy.”
The buckskin horse had picked its partner.
Through the weeks and months, the children took over the horses – grooming them, cleaning out their stalls and riding them.
The Webster City Rotary Club provided helmets for the program. Groves said the horse camp has received much support from the community.
Each child has goals set – ranging from listening to one another, expanding their vocabulary and working together.
One child wasn’t very communicative, didn’t say anything and didn’t want to go near the horses.
“It was foreign to him,” Groves said. “He didn’t want to touch the bales of hay. I never thought he would touch a horse, let alone ride a horse.”
But it happened. Around five months ago, he rode the horse and was excited. There was a bonding with his horse that Groves said is hard to explain.
He asks to “trot” now while riding and feeds the horse on his own.
The bond isn’t one-sided.
“This horse is generally anxious, but he lets this boy get into his manger and pet him,” he said. “The horse puts his head over him and will put hay over him.
“Anyone else, the horse gets excited and wouldn’t like it. But with him, he’s just calm.”
“There is this brotherhood, I’ve seen it.”
Teachers have seen major improvements with the students as work at the horse camp has progressed. Bonding has been a major aspect that they have seen with the kids – with the horses and also with their own parents.
“One parent told me that when they get back home, they talk about the horses, something they never had in common before,” Groves said.
The program will continue on to next year. The volunteers hope to continue it for years to come.
The teachers said that this camp was a dream for Groves – which quickly became a dream for all of them.
“For me, it’s a way of helping,” Groves said. “We all look for areas that we can provide something to make a difference in people’s lives.”