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‘Greatest thing’: Program helps children build confidence by reading to horses

As a horse named Lagertha snacked, 9-year-old Eliora stood nearby reading a book out loud.

On a windy Monday afternoon just before Thanksgiving in northwest Las Vegas, instructor Esther Hillner provided encouragement.

“That’s it,” she said. “You finished the book.”

Horse Powered Reading was created in 2012 with the aim of helping children who are struggling with reading. There are more than 700 trained facilitators in every U.S. state and more than 20 other countries.

Facilitators help students interact with horses — usually, from the ground.

The benefit of Horse Powered Reading for children is that “suddenly, they have new hope and they’re empowered by the horses,” said Michele Pickel, founder of Horse Powered Reading.

If they can get their reading buddy — a horse — to do what they want them to do, they can do a worksheet in front of them in a classroom, she said.

“Their belief in themselves is so much greater,” Pickel said, adding they’re also excited to read.

The Las Vegas Valley is home to a handful of Horse Powered Reading facilitators, including Hillner, Kim Godby (Hold Your Horses) and Gwen Abbott (Horse Sense 4U).

Godby has offered the program since 2017. Her educational classes have since expanded to include horse science and stable connections.

Abbott said that during her work at an equine facility, she learned of a program in equine-assisted psychotherapy.

She started working as a volunteer serving clients from veterans groups, in drug rehabilitation and from women’s shelters.

“I wanted to do more,” she wrote in an email to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

After months of researching programs, it was Horse Powered Reading that would “ring the bell for me,” she wrote. She became certified in August.

“In meetings with my community to ask how we can help, the question most often asked of me is, ‘How do horses teach people to read?’ Abbott wrote. “My job is to facilitate the process safely. The horse is the teacher. And it starts with a bond.”

Hillner heard about Horse Powered Reading through Facebook groups and earned her certification in August. Now, she has several students.

“It’s just a really great program for so many different levels of students,” she said.

To become a facilitator, participants complete a series of four online classes — each lasting about two-and-a-half hours — over a month. Participants don’t need to have any teaching background.

For Hillner, each of her Horse Powered Reading sessions typically lasts 30 to 45 minutes. It’s an interactive experience for children and working with horses has a calming effect, Hillner said.

She charges $320 for an eight-week session. Hillner said she’d ideally like to set up sponsorships for the program so that it’s accessible to more children regardless of income.

“Really, all the kids could benefit from it,” she said.

‘The greatest thing’

In addition to Horse Powered Reading, Hillner has a horse riding lesson and training program.

Kelly Oles — who has worked at the property for a couple of years cleaning stalls — said she has four children, all of whom have special needs.

Two of her children — who attend Somerset Academy’s Aliante campus in North Las Vegas — have been participating in Horse Powered Reading sessions once a week for a few months.

“I just think it’s the greatest thing,” she said.

There are so few hands-on experiences for children, Oles said. “Not many kids get to be around horses or animals, for that matter.”

Eliora, who turned 9 earlier this month and has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, loves horses.

As for reading, “she adores books but gets really frustrated,” Oles said.

She said the program also helps alleviate anxiety for her 10-year-old son Jude.

Horse Powered Reading is not just for children who have a disability, Oles said, adding she feels it would also be beneficial for many children and could spark a love of reading.

The military family is moving to Florida in January and they plan to look for a Horse Powered Reading program there.

‘Sneaky way to get them to learn’

Before retiring, Pickel was an education professor at Concordia University, St. Paul for about 25 years and her speciality was literacy instruction. She said she grew up on a farm and horses have always been part of her life.

In 2007, Pickel became trained as an equine specialist by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. She worked with mental health professionals who brought their clients out to work with her horses.

Then, she said there was a “big bang” in her head about how to help students who were struggling with reading.

She was teaching a graduate class at the time and asked if her students — who were teachers working toward a masters degree — had any students she could work with.

Pickel’s first two clients included a boy in first grade who was struggling with reading. She took research-based reading strategies from a textbook and adapted them into activities children can do in an arena.

“It was startling how that time in the arena with the horses was like an academic X-ray,” Pickel said. “It allowed me to see how (children) felt about reading.”

From there, she created a curriculum that’s divided into key skill areas.

Horse Powered Reading activities are games that cover foundational skills in a fun way, Pickel said. “It’s sort of a sneaky way to get them to learn.”

Working with a horse also helps instill motivation, self efficacy and persistence through challenges for children, she said.

Horse Powered Reading is impactful whether a child is neurotypical and just a little behind or if they’re neurodiverse and need something extra that horses can give them, Pickel said.

Children are struggling in so many ways, and the program begins to break through barriers that prevent them from learning, she said.

‘I’ll help you’

During a Nov. 20 lesson, Eliora and Jude were using materials to build a replica of a farm for Lagertha.

Hillner asked the siblings: “What’s another word for barn?”

“Stall,” Eliora responded.

A stall for horses is “like their room,” Hillner explained.

Eliora, who was wearing brown cowgirl boots, read two books to the horse. The second was called “Dragons Love Tacos 2.”

Hillner helped Eliora when she got stuck on certain words and encouraged her to sound them out.

Jude picked out a “Star Wars” book to read to the horse. After he was finished, he told his mother that Hillner helped him with some words.

After they took turns reading, the siblings fed baby carrots to Lagertha. As the horse ate a carrot out of his hands, Jude commented, “Her mouth got on me.”

Eliora chimed in, “I’m always scared when I do it.”

Hillner told them: “Here, I’ll help you.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com. Follow @julieswootton on X.

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