UPDATED: New horse program launched in Abbotsford

Robert Bateman Secondary is one of the few schools in B.C. to offer Equestrian Education.

Riding instructor Cayley Wilson watches Robert Bateman Secondary student Stephanie Thomson as she puts a horse through its paces.

Riding instructor Cayley Wilson watches Robert Bateman Secondary student Stephanie Thomson as she puts a horse through its paces.

Youth worker Ruth Neveu has seen students’ grades and school attendance improve.

She has seen confidence and social skills flourish.

And it’s because of horses.

Neveu, the aboriginal youth services worker at Abbotsford’s Robert Bateman Secondary, is the brainchild of the new Equestrian Program officially launched this week.

The program, initially for aboriginal students, is a first for the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland. Eleven students from Grade 9 to 12 are currently enrolled in the independent-study course, and plans are underway to introduce a full equestrian curriculum this September.

Neveu has been around horses her whole life – her dad taught the RCMP Musical Ride – and she wanted to share that experience with young people.

About two years ago, she was helping out a barn in Abbotsford, and she thought it would be a great place to take some of the students from the school.

She saw how the interaction with the animals helped to boost the kids’ confidence. Most of them had never been near horses before, and they developed interpersonal, teamwork and goal-setting skills as they learned how to care for and ride the animals.

Neveu approached, among others, Perry Smith, district principal of aboriginal education, with the idea of creating a full semester program.

Smith loved the idea.

“We saw it as a great opportunity for aboriginal students to build healthy self-esteem … and build a sense of mastery – that they can be successful at something.”

Some programming was offered last summer, and the program began in September.

Students visit the barns twice a week, and they are matched with the horse of their selection.

“They always seem to choose one that they really connect with (right away),” Neveu said.

They also have three classes a week at the school. Throughout the program, they learn such skills as horse and barn safety, grooming and saddling, lunging (exercising horses on a long lead line) and riding.

Neveu said participants inevitably grow attached to their four-legged companions. She tells the story of one boy who was insistent that he didn’t want to ride, but would come to the barns to learn and observe.

“He’s probably my most advanced rider now,” she laughs. “He loves it.”

Instruction and horse training is provided by Neveu, along with three professional trainers at Cayley Wilson Performance Horses in south Abbotsford.

Organizations involved in the partnership with the school also include the district aboriginal education department, Farm Credit Canada and Horse Council B.C.