P.E. classes in the saddle

A Steinbeis University student develops an equine preventative health program

A number of studies point to the crucial role social and emotional skills play in helping children and adolescents fit in at school and other social settings. These include the ability to recognize and understand one’s own and others’ feelings, to learn to empathize with others and control one’s feelings, and the ability to assert oneself and deal with conflict. Deficits in any of these areas are frequently associated with behavioral disorders. Frauke Schneider-Franzen, a business coach and consultant, has been studying at the Steinbeis Business Academy at Steinbeis University Berlin (SHB) since 2012. As part of her Bachelor of Arts degree in Social, Healthcare and Education Management, she has specialized in equine-assisted therapy. She has been working to introduce children’s riding classes at elementary schools. As part of her degree project, she has been looking at ways to develop social and emotional skills and improve the health and general happiness of children at elementary schools. Her instrument to achieve this: horses.

Horses are uniquely well suited to pedagogic and therapeutic topics such as cooperation, patience, approachability and human relationships. When adults and children interact with horses, emotions are aroused that can be put to good use in pedagogic processes. Horses are herding animals with a pecking order, and they are sensitive to their surroundings. Based on the assumption that children have a natural affinity for horses, these equine attributes can play a significant role in preventative education programs focused on development.

“The use of horses in therapeutic and pedagogic activities is rising continuously. But we still have a long way to go in German-speaking countries when it comes to degree programs and evidence-based practice in the field of equine-assisted intervention. Methodically sound studies are needed to prove the efficacy of equine-assisted intervention in each individual area,” reports the project manager Jennifer Kurré, a psychology graduate at the University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf. Kurré is advising the Steinbeis Transfer Institute of Equine Assisted Therapy and Management, which was founded by Dr. med. Rosemarie Genn in 2010 to qualify specialists in equine-assisted therapy, to lay down quality standards and carry out systematic research.

This is where the project being carried out by Frauke Schneider-Franzen comes in. “My personal objective is to provide empirical evidence of the positive effects of therapeutic and pedagogic activities, which have only been witnessed subjectively,” she explains. Her pilot project, “The role of equine-assisted intervention in promoting social and emotional skills,” examines the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy with respect to social and emotional skills development, and its role in improving the health and general happiness of children at elementary schools.

The design of Frauke Schneider-Franzen’s study involves a quasi-experimental approach based on three surveying periods. An intervention group takes part in the equine-based preventative program while a control group takes part in conventional physical education (P.E.) activities over the same period. The design makes it possible to make observations about shortterm changes and the long-term effects of equine-based intervention.

Following approval from the Lower Saxony state education authorities, the project is taking place at the Heideschule school in Buchholz. Heideschule is an elementary, junior high and “cooperation” school whose principal, Anke Stenzel, is open to the innovative approach toward educating her students and has been an exemplary advocate and practician of inclusion for years. For 24 students in grades 1 to 4, P.E. lessons now include the equine-assisted preventative program. Over a period lasting 12 weeks, children are spending supervised time once a week with and on horses at nearby stables called Franzenhof. The equine-assisted intervention not only involves riding, but also preparation and feeding horses afterwards. As part of the pedagogic concept, two children interact with each pony. The content of each lesson has been planned by Frauke Schneider-Franzen and agreed with the homeroom teacher and a project manager. To help supervise each session, there is a riding instructor with four other assistants.

The students are thrilled by the sessions, and the extremely positive initial reaction from the teachers and parents point to the hope that the scientific approach will result in positive results. After the first session, Corinna Vogt, a teacher and the deputy principal at the school said, “It was impressive to be allowed to witness the change in their social interactions with each other, even after a short time. Especially when it clearly happened during normal school time as well.”

Anke Stenzel, the principal, was also delighted: “Lots of students exceeded their own expectations and overcame huge fears – not just of the horses – and at the end of the project they were much more selfaware and self-confident in their manner and their behavior.” She said that she would welcome having equine-assisted sessions like Schneider-Franzen’s scheme as part of the regular elementary school program and that she was looking forward to seeing the results of the final evaluation.

As head of the Steinbeis degree program, Rosemarie Genn is delighted with the aptitude of Frauke Schneider-Franzen and other students in the program, not only for achieving “curriculum transfer” in such a short time but also for translating their scientifically methodical projects into practice.

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