While few might equate a horse barn with higher learning, almost any equestrian will tell you it can be the ideal classroom for learning some of life's most important lessons.
That is one of the reasons the Abbotsford school board decided to pluck 11 students from the school room and ship them out to the muck of a barn to learn what perhaps no textbook can teach.
Ruth Neveu has seen first-hand the connection between children and horses, how they can kindle a yearning for learning in students who have never been terribly keen before.
The youth worker at Robert Bateman secondary in Abbotsford grew up around horses. Her father was a teacher with the RCMP musical ride. Her two sons were raised around them.
Although the Abbotsford school district officially launched its equestrian program two weeks ago, Neveu has been introducing students to horses for years and had a larger group out this past summer.
"It was just so powerful," she said in a phone interview. "The kids had written about what this had done for their confidence, for setting goals. It just seemed to be such a win-win situation."
So much so that the board decided to enroll 11 students from Grade 9 to 12 in the independent study course now and develop plans to introduce a full equestrian curriculum in September.
Most of the about $40,000 cost of the first year of the program is from the district's aboriginal education department and from Farm Credit Canada. Most of the students in the program are aboriginal and some were at risk of dropping out of school. Working with horses seems to be getting them back on track. Neveu cites two teenage girls who were chronically absent last year. Since they have been in the program, "they have passed all their Grade 9 courses that they didn't pass last year and are up to speed on their Grade 10."
The program runs in partnership with the Abbotsford-based Cayley Wilson Performances Horses barn, which provides three professional trainers and four horses.
To get the four credits for the equestrian course, the students put in some classroom time and make twice-weekly visits to the barn where they learn skills like horse and barn safety, grooming, putting on a saddle and bridle, riding and lunging (exercising horses on a long lead line).
Neveu said lunging is particularly important.
"Lunging can be really tricky. It's all about timing and positioning and reading the horses."
She added, "It's incredible to see how they can transfer reading of a horse to people."
Equestrian learning programs are rare in B.C., but perhaps a natural fit in the Abbotsford area, with its many horse barns and partners willing to support the program.
"We do take a historical look at what horses have meant to aboriginal people here," said Neveu.
"It's a neat combination. Aboriginal practices are so much about nature and respect for animals."
"Just to witness what they are learning about themselves, about life skills," she said, has been a joy to her.
"They are learning a ton, to be positive, active members of the community. It has been nothing but positive, having these kids. It has really changed lives."