Walk, trot, canter: The Kildonan equestrian program leaps forward under the direction of Shay DiVittorio.
Since its founding, The Kildonan School has hosted an equestrian program with instruction for students at all grade and ability levels. Activities such as horseback riding require the right and left sides of the brain to engage to balance the body. Strengthening the body’s core and exercising the right-left connections in the brain through movement have positive impacts on language development for dyslexic learners.
Beyond the cognitive benefits of riding, opportunities abound for students to grow emotionally and socially. Kildonan offers daily contact with horses and other resident animals for students to develop strengths outside the classroom. The need for children who struggle with academic pursuits related to language to have a positive, nurturing, and fulfilling experience at school is great. The equestrian program — the caring and supportive staff, the horses, and the labor it takes to care for animals — all contribute to a positive experience for students.
Approximately half the school participates in the equestrian program during Elementary and Middle Years Program physical education classes, and during the afternoon sports period. Formal riding lessons teach the basics of riding and horsemanship. Other lessons include caring for the horses, maintaining the barns, and exposure to the equine business. Students are responsible for maintaining their riding gear, tacking their horse, mucking the stalls, and mixing the feed. The barn can’t function without them.
Older students take on more responsibility for caring for the horses. Karina ‘19 is studying veterinary care. Equestrian Director, Shay DiVittorio, arranged for an equine nutritionist to assess the herd with students so Karina and other students could learn about and participate in the effective care of the animals.
Shay taught at other barns before taking over the Abu Hadar Stables at Kildonan. She notes that dyslexic riders are different. Shay observed that, “dyslexic students try to bond with the animal, they don’t see the horses as a ‘thing.’ Kildonan students make a deep connection with the horses, and are willing to try new things. They are willing to work hard at what they do in the barn and on horseback. Students are very encouraging to each other and supportive of students at different levels.”
The horses need loving care to blossom at Kildonan. Several of the herd are rescues who have found refuge in the home Kildonan provides them. New to the stables this year, Diesel and Annie were rescued by Lady’s Legacy Equine Rescue in Poughquag, NY. Both horses need care and work just like the students who are learning to ride them.
Fun plays a huge role in student engagement with the equestrian program and Shay designs lessons to put fun right behind safety. Reading the animal’s emotions and practicing how to maintain safe boundaries while playing “Musical Stalls” or other Gymkhana-style games requires students to consider the whole environment while attending to the horse they are controlling.
The structure of riding lessons is varied and designed to challenge students at a range of abilities to develop their individual skills while engaging in a group activity. Experienced riders who have developed the strength and muscle memory to control their horse effectively are challenged by riding at different speeds, on bareback, or without stirrups. Opportunities to try different horses and riding styles bring further variety to the program, as do challenges like jumping, roping simulated cows, and mock barrel racing.
Shay notes that many students are excited to canter and are thrilled by the idea of going fast on a horse. Shay helps them work on the skill base needed to achieve that goal and stresses that the riders’ bodies need to be ready. Much of what is needed is time and development of core and leg strength to control the horse while cantering. Several students have cantered for the first time this fall.
Students have also flipped upside down on a horse and stood up on the backs of two horses while riding around the ring. Shay brought Ashley Pletcher, professional equine entertainer, to Kildonan for a trick-riding clinic in the fall. Exposing students to possibilities in the equine industry, whether it’s trick riding or showing animals at a local fair, is what Shay hopes to bring to the students during her time at Kildonan.
What would help students get more out of the equestrian program? A year-round riding facility, new tack, and structural improvements to existing facilities would go a long way to build a program that may one day host a competitive riding team for different levels and ages of riders or just as valuable, a home for a student who needs the love of animals each day.