Equestrian School

by Irene Schiff

We all have something to learn, we all have something to teach.

Schools and special divisions for students with disabilities were abolished some time ago, but this does not mean that social integration has been fully attained. A lot has been done, but life itself keeps presenting new challenges that must be dealt with and, luckily, new tools as well in order to do so. It is a continuous race, a continuous trot and gallop to surpass obstacles and, since we are borrowing on the terminology, why not address ourselves to it directly? It is particulary sensitive in nature, quite a bit patient, but certainly not devoid of character and it has always been available to help persons in difficulty, especially if they are children. So, why not ask for a hand or, rather, a hoof? This is exactly what we did and he (forgive the pronoun 'he' instead of 'it') responded with a resounding and friendly neigh. He would even have been willing to go in classes attended by his four cavaliers, but there would have been some practical problems. However, as the saying goes, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then the school will go to the ring! So, this is how it went, and it turned out even better than planned. As for every important personality, even for the horse it was considered appropriate to have an introductory meeting with the class to illustrate the goals of this initiative. To implement this, the horse sent to the schools two of his "ambassadors": Dr. Stefano Sabioni, veterinarian, and the undersigned. The veterinarian illustrated the world of this animal integrating, as coordinated with the science teacher, the school curriculum. The undersigned explained to the young people the purpose of hippotherapy and how the project would be carried out. Is there still someone, among you readers, who doesn't know yet? In this hypothetical case, no worry; we will right away sum it up. Hippotherapy is a very ancient technique (fourth century A.C.) which takes advantage of the physical and psychological help the horse can provide. The horse, in fact, has a special bearing with rhythms and movements that stimulate anyone's muscular system and, in the case of a disability, movements are required that otherwise would be difficult to stimulate, or with more effort. From the psychological point of view, the knowledge and the internal perception of the body, and the spatial sense of self is improved and strenghtened. For these reasons, it is quite indicated for persons living with vision loss. Let's get back to class with the students, particulary heedful and interested in the world they are discovering, exactly like their Pedagogical Director and teachers at Leonardo da Vinci and Carlo Pepoli high schools who, with enthusiasm, agreed to participate in the project. They acknowledged that such a special experience would be profitable for the children who would gain the opportunity to know their classmates in a different light. Integration is often a subject of discussion, but preteens, even with all the willpower they can muster, do not always have the possibility to achieve it outside their school and this is the opportunity to do so, and a cool opportunity at that. Following the more academic part, we went on to the GESE ring (Gruppo Emiliano Sport Equestri) of San Lazzaro di Savena at the gates of Bologna. All the kids were able to get close to the horses, to get to know them, mount them and ride them, realizing that it is not at all simple after all. They joined in short obstacle races. "Easy" someone could say, revealing this way never having had close encounters with this animal. And, it is not easy with eyes opened, imagine if they are closed! To perceive one's own body or to relate to space and develop orientation without the usual points of reference means creating a new cerebral model. The children, this time with their eyes open, did some vaulting exercises like staying on the saddle, carrying out special twisting moves and somersaults, moving constantly their centre of gravity, physical and mental.
After that, the same exercises were done by their 'disabled' classmates. It was interesting to watch those mouths open wide in astonishment.

When the 'disabled' classmates finished their exercises at the trot when the others did theirs pacing, a spontaneous and sincere applause exploded. Without any explanation, they understood on their own not so much that their friends were good athletes, but most of all how wrong it was to consider them disabled. During the following days, in school with their teachers, they relived the experience and the emotions they felt, pleased to recognize that they had stretched a bit further in their personal growth. Teachers and students at the Pepoli school wanted to share with everyone their experience and created a board with pictures and comments in order to convey the teaching they received and the pleasure they experienced. The initiative promoters, the Institute for the Blind Francesco Cavazza in collaboration with the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Bologna,  have set another stone on the path to integration making it a little less difficult to travel.