Arabian horses, happy dogs and a spirited donkey greet students when they first arrive at Gary Millar’s Arabian horse farm. Amidst the barn and bales of hay, this is a place where reading and magic come together through a unique literacy venture.
“The donkey’s the boss around here,” says Millar to his recent guests, a group of students, teachers and parents from Georges P. Vanier Elementary School in Morinville, Alberta. He shares the farm etiquettes and then leads them to the barn where they meet and touch the live horses. Each student has been given a copy of Little Black, A Pony, a first beginning-reader book written by the late Walter Farley. And each gets a chance to read to the horses.
This is when something seemingly akin to magic begins to happen between the young readers and the Arabians. One horse named Kallie moves in closer to a young boy and nuzzles the book. The mare closes her eyes and settles in as the student continues to read.
“Horses are outstanding teachers,” says Gary Millar. A former elementary music teacher, Millar (74 BEd) developed the Arabian Horse Reading Literacy Project after experiencing the impact his horses had on adults during his HorseSense communications workshops, which are aimed at fostering team building and leadership skills.
For many of the students, this is the first time they have ever touched a live horse. For most if not all, reading to a horse is a new experience. “The horses provide such a powerful spark. Each time students come to the barn, I see them motivated to want to read,” Millar says.
“Horses help people relax their defences and the walls they build around themselves. This helps to open the relationship between oneself and others. They are a bridge to self-esteem and emotional strength, establishing bonds of trust that overcome fear and aggression.”
Millar first started offering the literacy workshops to children five years ago after learning about the nation-wide black stallion literacy project in the U.S. Both initiatives are based on the works of Walter Farley who has been hailed by his colleagues and peers as a literary phenomenon who understood how to harness the power of imagination.
“I learned much about Walter Farley through his son, Tim, who is on the Board of Directors for The Black Stallion Literacy Foundation. What intrigued me most about Farley was that he wrote The Black Stallion at sixteen years of age while sitting at the kitchen table. I saw the actual handwritten version. To me this suggests anyone who has the desire can be a writer … and it can start at their own table,” says Millar who went out into the field to test his ideas about horses and children.
“I took one of my horses with me for a visit to grade 7 to 9 students at Parkview School in Edmonton. I left them with stories, historical data, fantasy stories and romantic adventures of the Arabian horse and challenged them to write their own stories and poems. What resulted was the book I love to read to the horses, fully written and edited by the students themselves. They did a superb job,” says Millar who published their works.
“There were many different positive results, from putting their creative writing to work, confronting the “risk” of reading their stories aloud to their peers and the horses, to the social pressures of dealing with horses—animals who are extremely intuitive, from whom you can keep no secrets.”
Students in their early years are the primary focus of Millar’s literacy work. The point is to instill in children a love of reading, to motivate and get them excited in the early grades such as 1 to 3 and to re-spark their imaginations by grades 4 to 5.
While the area of research specific to using horses to read is still relatively uncharted in Canada, recent educational research at the University of Alberta suggests that animals improve children’s capacity to learn.
Lori Friesen, a doctoral student in elementary education, uses dogs to stimulate children’s love of literacy. In her findings, Friesen reports dogs to be an important catalyst for the children’s enthusiasm towards curriculum-based reading and writing activities. Her examination of the unique learning opportunities made possible through school-based animal-assisted literacy mentoring programs will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Language & Literacy.
According to Millar, what’s compelling about horses is the way in which they communicate. “Human and horses are similar in the way they communicate—mostly through body language and textured sounds. When working with the horses we are forced to communicate in a way that they can understand. When we do that, the horses respond immediately,” says Millar.
He adds that not all teachers get it at first, but those who do embrace the literacy workshop wholly. “The first teacher who ever came just loved it. She said, ‘We are coming again but for the entire day next time,’” says Millar.
In addition to reading to the horses, Millar’s young guests learn the anatomy of the horses and engage in feeding, stabling and grooming activities. At the end of the visit, they watch as the Arabians are freed to their pastures.
While the bus waits, some of the students continue to lean over the fences, fresh tusks of grass in their hands, hoping to touch their new friend one last time. Morinville bound, some even take their Little Black, A Pony out of their backpacks and begin to read.
Mystical is how I describe
My Arabian horse so full of pride
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dawn Ford is the Director of Communications at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Education. www.education.ualberta.ca
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2011 issue.