Spectra Secondary School is using an unusual method to deliver its Character and Citizenship Education programme to students.
It is using horses in what is called Equine-Assisted Learning Therapy, or Equal, run by non-profit group Equal-Ark Singapore.
Equal - which is usually a 16-session programme - aims to help young people work through emotional and behavioural issues through interaction with horses.
It is offered to vulnerable youth through the Ministry of Social and Family Development, voluntary welfare organisations and some Ministry of Education schemes.
Two other programmes run by the group are Equal Scholar-Lite and Equal Scholars, which are more intense and of longer duration. They add on extensive community engagement, with Equal Scholars providing school and job support services for youth and persons with disabilities who are not in education, employment or training.
For Spectra Secondary, Equal was adapted into its curriculum for all Secondary 2 students.
The therapy is based on the belief that horse-human interaction helps facilitate therapeutic and learning outcomes.
It works by allowing students to interact closely with the horses, which includes experiencing how to lead, groom and even shower the animals.
For example, the theme of respect is explored by allowing the students to interact with a few free-roaming horses in a riding arena. This takes place at the National Equestrian Park in Jalan Mashhor, where Equal-Ark has access to a block of 16 stables, an arena and classrooms.
The students try to guide the animals with hand gestures and body language. Sometimes the horses respond, and sometimes they do not.
Questions are then posed to the students: "How did it feel when the horse did not respond? What did or did not feel respectful?"
After the session, students are asked to reflect on and relate their experience to real-life scenarios both at school and at home.
Equal director Desmond Wong says the equine environment is an effective and novel platform for rehabilitation, with the group seeing 600 beneficiaries every year.
Horses, he says, are "very sensitive to social cues. As such, they provide direct feedback to a youth's emotions and internal state. This helps the facilitators identify and process key issues in a safe space."
Mr S. B. Sivaganesh, the head of department of student development at Spectra Secondary, says that as a result of the therapy, "students are more empathetic towards the needs of their classmates".
"They are also more accommodative and respectful in their daily dealings with their schoolmates".
Spectra Secondary student Zulfaqar Norani, 15, was in the Equal Scholars programme last year while with the Singapore Boys' Hostel.
This year, he is back with his Secondary 2 classmates at Spectra Secondary as a mentor alongside Equal Therapy facilitators.
He was reluctant to go back to school initially, but after the Equal Scholars programme, he decided to enrol in Spectra Secondary again to complete his N levels.
Mr Wong said: "When Zul first came in, he was quite withdrawn and indifferent but, over time, he developed a strong sense of empathy.
"He became, in some ways, a pro-social role model to his peers. The fact that he chose to go back to school was very encouraging to his peers in Equal Scholars."
This article was first published on July 28, 2016.
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