Meeting of the Minds
When Jessica Freund of Gardner, Kan., graduated from college with her early elementary education degree, she set out to help mold the minds of children and guide the future of the world. However, after six years in a classroom, Freund discovered it was not within the brick walls of a school building where she could make the biggest impact—it was in a paddock surrounded by miniature horses.
“When I was teaching first grade I had a set of twin girls in my class whose sibling participated in therapeutic riding lessons at New Horizon Ranch in Rantoul, Kansas,” Freund says. “They knew I loved horses and invited me to come to the ranch’s spring open house. I went and discovered they needed volunteers. I have always loved horses and have a minor in special education so I knew this would be a great place for me to help give back.”
After four years of volunteering, New Horizon Ranch’s founders, Brian and Joy Miller, knew Jessica was making a huge difference in the children who came to their ranch and decided to hire her full time with the intent that she could begin to bring classroom principles to the barn.
“Jessica has completed our team and has allowed us to exponentially grow our educational enrichment within existing programs, and she has been the impetus for developing several new programs,” Joy Miller says. “She has the mind and heart of a teacher and truly finds and creates ways to incorporate learning and academics into therapeutic riding. She has taught us horses have a way of helping any individual with the challenges they face, as long as we are willing to create opportunities for them to safely interact with one another. I stand back in awe at how blessed we are to have her on our team.”
Classroom to Tack Room
Since coming to New Horizon Ranch, Freund’s “inner teacher” has sparked many conversations with parents about subjects their children were struggling with in the classroom. Freund would then incorporate some of those lessons into their therapeutic riding sessions.
“For example, while the child was riding, I might ask them to identify the shapes and colors of objects around the arena,” Freund says. “I discovered there seemed to be the greatest need for a specific reading program, and that is how the idea of having a reading program at the ranch began.”
After doing extensive research, Freund and Miller designed their program to meet the needs of their students and called it Giddy Up and Read.
Giddy Up and Read is offered one day per week during the ranch’s season, which runs from March to November, and is open to any child reading below their grade level.
“When the program first started, we were just hoping to give the kiddos a chance to read in a more relaxed environment,” Freund says. “The classroom setting can be a stressful place to learn because kids can’t help but compare themselves to their classmates and feel pressured and self-conscious. Out at the ranch, the children don’t have to sit still while they practice their reading skills, they get to be outdoors and be with horses. And that really makes reading more fun for them.”
Since the program began in 2015, it has evolved and now is structured like this:
- Students begin their lesson horseback and work on reading skills in the arena, such as identifying sight words, rhyming, etc.
- Then, students take their horse to the barn for an educational horse lesson, such as learning breeds and/or colors of horses
- Next, the students head up to the barn’s hayloft, which is now a horse-themed classroom, for a reading lesson
- Finally, the children are able to take a book outside and read to miniature horses to practice their skills
“Riding the horse allows for cross-body motion, which encourages the brain to fire. By riding first, we prep their brain to be ready for the information we are going to teach them in the classroom,” Freund says.
During the riding portion, Freund transforms the arena into a reading center that is completely customized to the skill set each child needs to work on. One example would be matching similar words. For this activity, the rider has a bag of words hanging from their saddle horn and must maneuver their horse around the arena to various centers to match and organize the words into categories. Freund says this allows the student to not only learn the reading skill, but also horsemanship.
An unexpected development was how much the horses enjoyed the reading portion of the program. Freund says they expected the children to enjoy reading in this setting, but they did not anticipate how willing the horses would be to hear a good story.
“When we first started, we brought the miniature horses into a stall to be read to, but we noticed when the kids were really engaging in the book, the minis were naturally drawn to the child,” she says. “So, we moved the program out to the paddock and we let the minis be the reward system for the kids. When the kids really focus and get into their book, the ponies come and stand close. If the child loses interest in reading the story, the minis lose interest too and walk away. It has been remarkable to watch.”
One Giddy Up and Read student who has benefitted tremendously from the program is Kacey Stottlemire. When she first came to the ranch, she had just started first grade and was reading a grade level below where she should be.
“Kacey really lacked confidence,” Freund says. “When she would get stuck on a word or task, she didn’t have the confidence to think through the problem and come up with a solution. She would just give up.”
After learning Kacey was reading below her grade level, the Stottlemire family enrolled her in an after-school, intensive reading program. But, when Kacey was retested, she showed little improvement.
“When we learned about the Giddy Up and Read program, we decided to give it a try because Kacey loved horses,” her mother, Tammie Stottlemire, says. “Kacey loved the program, and as a parent, that made me happy. But I was ecstatic when we started seeing an improvement in her test results. The first time she was tested after starting the program, her reading scores were appropriate for her age. When she was tested again at the end of the semester, she was exceeding her grade level and her scores were at least 20 points higher in every reading category than they were at the beginning of the school year.”
Freund says children can stay in the Giddy Up and Read program as long as they want or need to, and she will continue to customize the lessons and skills to meet the child’s evolving needs. Additionally, Freund and New Horizon Ranch have been working on cross-curricular pilot programs and are ready to begin using horses to help children with other classroom subjects as well.