The sound of trotting hooves could be heard outside Malden High School on Wednesday as more than 50 students participated in a unique animal-assisted therapy session.
“It’s not every day that a horse walks into a school,” said Toni Hadad, founder and president of Lifting Spirits, an Andover-based nonprofit that provided the horses. “There were a lot of smiles, a lot of kisses. . . . Everyone really enjoyed meeting them and learning about them.
Lifting Spirits offers equestrian therapy at more than 90 facilities across the state, including nursing homes, elementary schools promoting anti-bullying messages, and colleges looking to relieve stress during exam week.
To help students cope with the stress of a school year disrupted by the pandemic, the nonprofit provided Malden High School with three miniature horses barely measuring 25 to 36 inches.
Students took a break from class to get some fresh air and interact with the animals, which Hadad said helps alleviate stress and promote positive social interactions.
Animal-assisted therapy is widely accepted as effective in the field of psychology, but horses are particularly emotionally intelligent, Hadad said.
“The horses are amazing,” she said. “They have a magnetic field that radiates 40 to 50 feet where they can synchronize their breathing with humans and actually calm a person.”
And miniature horses can be especially calming for students with special needs or who have been bullied.
“Horses have special needs within themselves,” Hadad said in a telephone interview. “We convey that everyone is different and that it’s okay to be different. Our horses are different because they are small and have health issues, but they are horses like all other horses.
Rachel Gelling, a social worker at Malden High School, said the program was a success. Some students and teachers had never seen a horse up close – let alone a miniature, she said.
“They were so excited,” Gelling said, “They’re going to be talking about it all week.”
She also said that now more than ever, students need extra emotional support.
“Overall, I have noticed that after going through so much isolation, we have an increased number of children showing symptoms of social anxiety,” Gelling said in a telephone interview. “COVID has been difficult for everyone. “
She said a student arrived with tears in his eyes on Wednesday, but after a few minutes with the horses, the student was “smiling and on her way back to class.”
Julia Carlin can be reached at [email protected]