Equine-assisted learning prepares VSU students for success

Apr. 29—VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University is harnessing the wisdom of horses to help students develop the essential skills needed to achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals.

VSU's new STRIDES (Students Together Reaching Individual Development and Educational Success) Equine-Assisted First-Year Student Experience is designed to help students develop self-awareness, goal-setting strategies, and problem-solving, team-building, and communication skills.

"Our hope is that students leave this course with an academic mindset that is growth oriented, wherein they perceive academic challenges as doable with the appropriate strategies," said Dr. Gwen Scott Ruttencutter, an assistant professor in VSU's Department of Leadership, Technology, and Workforce Development. "We also want them to develop grittiness in their academic pursuits, wherein they understand that talent is important but focused, hard work is worth twice as much, and agency to take primary responsibility for their own learning."

Ruttencutter designed the equine-assisted experiential learning opportunity with Dr. Kate Warner, associate dean of VSU's James L. and Dorothy H. Dewar College of Education and Human Services. The two colleagues have a passion for working with horses and for helping students embark on a journey of self-discovery, one that leads them to better understand the impact their behavior has on themselves and others.

"We know that horses are animals with a discerning gift for detecting intention and authenticity in those around them," Warner said. "They are highly social, super sensitive, and quick to respond to changes in their environment, and they have a strongly attuned sense of awareness. People often describe them as 'mirrors' because of their ability to detect human behaviors, emotions, and intentions. Because of this, equine-assisted learning is a valuable tool for helping students develop authenticity, mindfulness, sincerity, assertiveness, effective communication, reliability, and other valuable skills."

Throughout Spring Semester 2024, Ruttencutter and Warner have led students through a series of classroom-based lessons on campus and barn-based activities at Jacobs' Ladder Therapeutic Riding Center in Hahira. This unconventional class is one built on trust — from student to student, student to horse, and horse to student.

On barn days, the students participate in a variety of non-riding equine-assisted learning activities — grooming and haltering a horse, building an obstacle course and leading a horse through it, observing herd dynamics and equine behavior, and more.

Classroom days focus on discussing readings and concepts, with students reflecting on their equine-assisted learning activities and connecting everything to the overall academic experience. This includes analyzing how they might do something differently in the future.

"This experience has helped me learn to not give up when I feel like a failure," said Miranda Addison, an elementary education major from Adel. "It has taught me to have a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset because I can do anything I put my mind to. It has also taught me to forgive, have confidence in myself and my abilities, and learn from my mistakes."

Ruttencutter described another student who was significantly impacted by a horse's forgiveness during a barn day exercise. She said the experience prompted the student to consider how forgiveness and a willingness to trust others are things she has struggled with in the past and how that may be negatively impacting her journey in college and in life.

Feedback like this motivates Ruttencutter and Warner to look for ways to expand their program and their ability to positively influence the student experience.

"The goal for the class is for first-year students to know, in deep and meaningful ways, that they belong at VSU and that they have the ability to encounter, overcome, persist, and succeed academically," Warner said.

"The risk of attrition is highest among students of color and first-generation college students, both of which constitute a substantial portion of VSU's undergraduate population," Ruttencutter explained. "This class is one way VSU is increasing student success through innovation and helping students develop the skills needed to persist in higher education. It's about more than good grades and high test scores. We want our students to develop the ability to adapt and solve problems, to build healthy relationships and effective communication, to think critically and creatively, and to deal with the demands and challenges of life in healthy ways."

This course is supported by VSU's Quality Enhancement Plan Experiential Learning Seed Grant program and endorsed by the QEP's Experiential Learning Endorsement initiative.