Learning with pony power
By Jenn Watt
Published June 12, 2018
As prey animals, horses and ponies need to be more attuned to their surroundings than others. They are alert to a human’s body language and tone of voice. They judge interactions on what they see in front of them; there are no preconceived notions.
While most people will have encountered horses during excursions on forested trails or at a race track, there is a whole other side to what equine animals can do.
This spring, a new project was launched called the Abbey Gardens Pony Powered Learning Experience, or APPLE. Led by Lesley English, the program teaches life skills using the two Lac La Croix ponies and a miniature appaloosa horse that live at Abbey Gardens.
“Because they live in herds there’s always a strong group dynamic, which translates into teamwork for people and they always look for strong leadership because it’s the alpha in the group that’s going to find the best grass and find the places to drink. It’s the alpha male that’s going to watch out for prey,” English said. “If they don’t find a strong leader, they’ll step into the role themselves … but that’s how they teach leadership.”
English, a lifelong equestrian and longtime coach, trained at Dreamwinds Equine Assisted Learning Centre in Bradford, during a five-day, 90-hour course. Through that program, she learned how to let the ponies’ natural instincts guide participants through learning.
The APPLE program is different from horse-based therapy, which is also offered in the Highlands.
Where some programs are about working through mental health issues, for example, Equine Assisted Learning is about personal growth and development.
Lesley English of the APPLE program at Abbey Gardens shares some time with Sammy the pony on a hot Wednesday afternoon. APPLE, which stands for Abbey Gardens Pony Powered Learning Experience, is a new program offered to groups and teaches skills such as leadership, communication and assertiveness. /JENN WATT Staff
APPLE sessions do not involve riding the ponies. Instead, participants work together and with the animals to lead them through various challenges. The program is intended to make participants think in new ways and learn how to be calm and assertive.
“They assess, but they don’t judge,” English said.
The horses can tell what mood the humans are in and they adjust their own behaviour accordingly.
Lac La Croix Indigenous ponies, also known as Ojibwe horses, are one of three Canadian breeds. There are thought to be about 200 of them in the world, meaning their species is “teetering on the edge of extinction,” English said.
The two Lac La Croix ponies at Abbey Gardens are named Maple and Sammy. Their Ojibwe names are Akoozi and Wawasum, respectively.
The third is a miniature appaloosa horse named Flapjack, who English notes is good at teaching people to set boundaries, as he loves to do his own thing.
After doing some trial runs, APPLE has launched two programs: Ladies Night and Date Night.
Ladies Night is about empowerment, English said, and is geared to issues such as setting boundaries, assertiveness and valuing one’s own time. It’s a series of six nights, each one has its own theme. Participants don’t need to attend all six. Sessions last between one and a half to two hours.
Date Night can be for couples or for friends or parent and child – those with close relationships and focus on trust and communication.
English said she hopes APPLE can be expanded to include professional development for corporate groups. While there are many other great team-building exercises available, she points out, they don’t always bring with them the teachable moments and skill-building that working with horses through Equine Assisted Learning does.
Ladies Nights are the second Wednesday of every month and Date Night is the last Friday of the month. For more information, go to abbeygardens.ca/equine-assisted-learning. You can email Lesley English at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page: facebook.com/abbeygardensponypoweredlearningexperience.