Sally Smith, 10, felt invisible and thought no one could hear or see her or, for that matter, cared about her thoughts and feelings. After graduating from the local youth empowerment workshop, 8.9.10: Ride to Win, Sally felt differently.
“People finally listen to me when I talk and care about my feelings,” Sally said. Although she’s talking about people with four legs (the horses), she also said that she has found her voice in the classroom, as well.
“I’m not afraid to raise my hand and answer or ask questions anymore,” Sally added.
Sally’s name has been changed for this article, and she is one of 50 local elementary-school students who have attended the four-week 8.9.10: Ride to Win workshops put on by Las Vegas-based Horses4Heroes. The workshops are offered free to private or public schools and youth and church groups. Since its introduction in spring 2012, Lamb of God Lutheran School, Agassi Prep, Tarr and Kelly elementary schools, and the Nellis Air Force Base Youth Center After-School program have participated in the workshops.
Funded in part by Cox Charities, 8.9.10: Ride to Win is designed for kids in grades three through five and partners these students with eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders from local middle and high schools. Unlike other anti-bullying programs that target older students, Horses4Heroes thinks that many anti-social modeling behaviors begin as early as third grade .
Once a week for four weeks, this after-school program, taught in an outdoor classroom, teaches kids about respect, trust, boundaries, empathy, body language, verbal versus nonverbal communication and positive conflict resolution.
Students are paired with a horse on the first day and learn how to properly introduce themselves to their new four-legged friend and the rest of the time is spent getting acquainted. The second week, they learn about body language by watching horses communicate with each other. Week three, things are mixed up a bit to stress out the kids and teach them how to deal with change. The fourth week, the kids put it all together, culminating in the opportunity to ride their new friend and partner. A graduation ceremony concludes the four-week session.
During the workshop, kids learn that first impressions matter, how to make friends, how to solve conflicts peacefully and the importance of body language when communicating.
“Kids today can Skype, but they can’t make eye contact; they can text but they can’t shake hands, and they can navigate social media sites but many lack social skills,” Kelly Principal Pat Harris said. “Programs like 8.9.10: Ride to Win that offer opportunities for learning outside the classroom are very important to build upon and expand the lessons learned at school.”
Respect is an important theme weaved through the program. According to Lisa Campbell, a former middle school principal and Clark County School District administrator, “Horses teach you how to respect yourself and others.”
Why horses? According to Horses4Heroes, horses are large and extremely powerful and naturally intimidating to many people. Handling an animal of this size and strength increases the students’ confidence and decreases their fears and self-doubt. This creates a natural opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop self-confidence.
“When you spend time with horses, in order to earn their respect and trust, you have to be outgoing and assertive, be aware of your personal space and theirs, pay close attention to nonverbal communication cues and don’t get easily upset when things don’t go according to plan,” said Sidney Knott, Horses4Heroes president.
“The truth is kids who ride and spend time with horses tend to be more confident and thus, are rarely bullied,” Knott said. “Kids who ride horses respect their horse and themselves.”
During a 2011 ceremony proclaiming a Week of Respect , Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval echoed this sentiment when he said: “If students respect themselves and others, then bullying will end.”
The workshop is one of several morale-boosting health and wellness and instructional programs created by Las Vegas-based Horses4Heroes. The organization offers Back in the Saddle, a similar life skills workshop for adult men and women, including victims of domestic abuse and violence and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Unfinished Business, the organization’s grief counseling series.
“All of the programs use horses as instructional partners to build self-confidence, develop independence, encourage responsibility, teach consequences, illustrate cause-and-effect relationships, develop social skills, and recognize nonverbal communication and cues,” Campbell said. “These essential life skills will guide students through their teen years and will stay with them as adults.
“Studies have shown that children who are engaged, motivated and focused become empowered, self-confident, self-assured, achievers. They don’t drop out of school; they get better grades, have better social skills and are less likely to be bullied.”
Horses4Heroes is the only locally based, national nonprofit organizaton that owns horses and uses those horses, including donated and feed lot rescues, every day in programs that serve local heroes and the community. The organization’s large and growing national network of equestrian centers in 44 states and Canada offer affordable, sometimes free, recreational, instructional and health and wellness programs.