Taking The Reins

The Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association offers lessons beyond the books.

Photography: Bluefish Studios

The little girl with the bright blue eyes and a sprinkle of cheek freckles is standing up against the wall, waiting, as patiently as her eight years allow, for her teacher and teaching assistant to finish conferring. Today is class picture day and, at this school, students are posing individually with their teachers.

“OK, who’s riding Cocoa today?”

The little girl’s hand shoots up, and she walks to the stall with her head held high. She takes the lead rope from the teaching assistants and settles in by the horse’s side, looking up at the animal with unabashed love.

Cocoa takes a tentative step forward; the little girl gently holds her back. “I know,” she murmurs into the horse’s cheek. “You want to go. Me too, but we have to wait our turn, OK?” She lays her head against the horse, encircling her neck with her free arm. “You’re adorable,” she says.

Our memories of favourite teachers are often rooted in the relationships we built with them. But, it’s unlikely the teachers we remember were named Cocoa, Joker or Dakota, or that they bedded down in a paddock after lessons were over for the day.

To meet these educators, you’ll need to head down to the Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association (WELCA), nestled on 48 pastoral acres in the river valley, south of the North Saskatchewan along Fox Drive. As a City of Edmonton community partner, WELCA provides a wide variety of equine services to people of diverse ages, riding experience and needs. Its programs range from a horsemanship program that runs in two 20-week semesters and an eight-week Learn to Ride program, to summer camps for children and instructor-led pony rides for pre-schoolers aged one to five years. WELCA also hosts riding lessons, school field trips, seniors’ tours and workshops on topics such as how to think like a horse. Girl Guides earning badges, students in NAIT’s animal health technology program and clients of equine-assisted physical and mental health therapy initiatives are all granted access to WELCA’s horses and facilities.

It’s not hard to see that the Whitemud Equine Centre is much more than your average riding stable. “Everything we do is about learning and teaching,” says Diane David, executive director of WELCA, who was instrumental in implementing this educational focus. “It just seemed to work for this organization.”

Given the diversity of the WELCA’s riders, the 35-horse teaching staff has its work cut out for it. They are a mostly senior population, with an average age of 21 years, arriving at WELCA after careers in ranching, trail riding or the competitive arena. As lesson horses, they will take on new roles and responsibilities, which they’ll learn with the assistance of WELCA’s human instructors.

David points out that every horse has “its own mind, its own intelligence, its own way of looking at the world.” As WELCA’s staff interact with their trainees, they are getting to know each horse’s personality, which can take as much as a year. The horses must be willing to learn new behaviours and expectations, while unlearning old ones. Working in an indoor arena may be a first-time experience for a trail horse, while show-jumping horses may associate arenas with the intensity of competition, rather than a teaching environment. The horses must learn to stand patiently when required, and to listen to the human educator’s instructions during lessons, even when a rider is giving them competing signals. “You just slowly expose them for short periods of time to the things that they need to learn, and then you expand that as they accept it,” says Lynda Tennessen, WELCA’s lesson program manager.

Not all horses are suited to a teaching role – some display behaviours such as bucking, rearing or lying down with a rider on board and without provocation. However, horses unsuited to teaching roles are filtered out before they reach WELCA. Also, in the arena, a horse must be willing to relinquish the social status it holds within the herd, and view the human instructor as boss. “Some horses accept that, and some don’t. That’s a horse that doesn’t want to do the job. They’re more interested in being number one than they are in being part of the team,” says David.

Eventually, though, most of the equine trainees happily take on their new roles and develop individual teaching styles. Dakota helps students to remember the lesson “look in the direction you want your horse to go” by continuing to walk in a circle until the rider gives her the correct cue. Frost is an expert at judging when a child is ready to canter. “He doesn’t go very far, maybe four steps. And he knows not to choose the child who is really anxious or is not paying attention. He does it with the child who is looking for that kind of experience,” says David.

After the horses have worked with riders in the lessons, they are assessed for teaching positions in the Little Bits Therapeutic Riding Association, an equine-assisted therapy initiative for riders with physical and mental challenges. These horses must accept being led by one volunteer, while two others walk on either side. They must be patient and calm with riders who may move or verbalize more than other students do. “In the Little Bits program, they understand the role they play,” says Lisa Doyle, who instructs in both programs. “You can see that they understand who’s on them.”

The staff at WELCA see many benefits of the connections that students form with their equine instructors. Riders improve their posture, balance and strength, and enhance their confidence and self-esteem. Some children on the autism spectrum speak their first words from a horse’s back. Stephen Hill, an adult riding student, says that before taking lessons, horses made him a bit nervous – but they don’t at all anymore.

The positive relationships students establish with the horses ripple out to include friendships with other riders, the staff and a desire to give back to WELCA. Riders who took lessons as children will often return as teenagers to volunteer, sometimes bringing their parents with them. “And once they have kids of their own, they bring them back so we’ve got a stable, growing community,” says David.

The horse educators enjoy their own set of perks. In October, they’ll begin teaching and learning in a new arena that is fully accessible, barrier-free, 40 per cent larger than their former workspace and climate-controlled. Their other terms of employment – two hours of instruction a day, at least one day off per week and two weeks of annual vacation – will remain unchanged, as will their free room and board, dental work, vaccinations, massages and pedicures. “We always say that the horses are the only full-time employees on-site with full benefits,” says David. “But they give a lot in return.”

This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.

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