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Fourth-graders mark year’s end with horses

For reading practice, more horsepower

Grandville — As fourth-grader Laila Whitby stood amongst the horse stalls and gently opened a book, Champ the horse’s ears perked up. Laila began reading out loud and Champ turned, pointing his head toward the book as if to get a better view of the words and pictures on the page. 

Suddenly, Champ snorted and gently nudged Laila’s hand with his nose. Laila let out a tiny shriek followed by lots of nervous giggling, but eventually regained her composure to finish reading her part of the book to the horse. 

“(Champ) was kind of nipping at me to smell the book — I guess he really liked the book!” Laila exclaimed after her reading time was over. “(Reading to a horse) was fun, just a little scary, but it made me feel really good when he started sniffing my hand. 

“I don’t have any pets at home, so I normally read to a little sibling or a cousin. It was different reading to a horse, a little unusual, but maybe a bit easier … probably because it wouldn’t judge or correct me.” 

To close out the school year, Laila and the rest of the fourth-graders from Century Park Learning Center spent a day of hands-on learning at the Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding in Rockford. The outing served partly to celebrate reading accomplishments during Reading Month in March, but also to teach students the importance of giving back to one’s community. 

“I want (students) to see that learning does not always have to just take place in a four-walled classroom,” teacher Jenn Grant said. “It’s good to get out and have different experiences and see that they can learn while they’re helping others. Some of these kids have never had any experience in a barn or with horses, and it’s so important to know that there are other things in the world beyond the area where they live.” 

Inspired to Volunteer

In her spare time, Grant also works at the Equest Center, which serves people who have physical, mental or emotional challenges, using horses as the catalyst for healing. Grant described it as “my most favorite place in the world,” making the partnership a natural fit. 

“Horses are actually very emotional, caring animals; they can read the room and are very good at getting in tune with a person,” she said. “That environment just makes a lot of people feel better, and it resonates with kids who may be at different skills or confidence levels than their peers.”

The fourth-graders spent part of the day at Equest helping with many of the daily physical tasks around the grounds: wiping down stalls, mucking out the pastures, grooming the horses and cleaning saddles and bridles. As they moved from station to station, they also learned about different types of horses and how to interact with the animals. They even learned a bit of sign language, as the center offers a Deaf and Hard of Hearing program as part of its services. 

Out in one of the pastures, Arianna Watts was downright joyful to be assigned the task of raking up horse manure and removing it from the pen. She said she “can’t really explain it,” other than that she wasn’t bothered by the smell. 

“I am so very grateful that we get to come here and see the horses, so I’m really happy to be doing some volunteer work to show our gratitude,” she said. “I love horses but I don’t really see them a lot, so I’m glad that we can help them out.”

Arianna said the work itself wasn’t that difficult, but required a lot of teamwork from her classmates, with some students raking, others scooping and a few brave souls willing to maneuver the full, heavy wheelbarrows. 

“It takes a lot of team effort, but I think it is going pretty good,” she said. “I haven’t really done volunteer work before, but I hope to maybe do some this summer, because this is a lot of fun. It’s definitely gonna inspire me to volunteer.” 

Building Confidence in Reading

As for the reading aspect of the day, Grant said the goal was to build upon the skills they worked on during Reading Month, when they read books focused on social-emotional learning with horses as the main characters. At the Equest Center, the fourth-graders got the chance to practice reading aloud to the horses — sometimes one-on-one, and sometimes in front of their classmates.

“It’s all about gaining confidence in reading,” Grant said. “Studies show that kids who struggle with reading have anxiety about reading out loud in front of their peers — but when they’re reading to a horse, they forget about that because they’re so focused on the animal.

“I’m watching my shy, introverted kids and they’re smiling and feeling good because they don’t feel like they’re being judged by the horse. If they mess up, the horse isn’t going to know. To see that confidence boost in them is amazing; they feel like they can be just as successful as the rest of their peers.”

Isaac Maxwell certainly agreed with his teacher’s assessment. He had the chance to read to Barnaby, a Belgian draft horse, in front of his class, but said the main thing he focused on in the moment was the horse. 

“It was interesting how (Barnaby) listened with his ears and how he would move them back and forth like he was really listening to me reading,” the fourth-grader said. “I think I was a little nervous, but I felt really good about it. He was the best, the goodest horse, and it was really cool.” 

Read more from Grandville: 
At JA BizTown, a mini city provides life-sized learning
Young readers follow the recipe for perfect pound cake

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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