Horses at Waikawa Beach are helping to teach young children how to read.
Mental health clinician Anna Royal and equine specialist Kelly Henry have teamed up to start an innovative learning programme using horses as an educational tool.
All three horses used in a Horse Powered Reading programme started their life as feral horses living wild in the Kaimanawa Ranges and each had found a new home at the beach and a job in education.
Henry said the eight-week programme aimed at helping children who struggled to learn to read in a mainstream school environment.
Horse Powered Reading was based on a US model from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).
The pair had run the programme for three years and it was natural progression of equine education work they were doing with Oranga Tamariki and secondary schools aimed at leadership, problem solving and self-esteem.
Henry said the horses not only worked as "reading buddies", they could also act as a metaphor for whatever was going on in their life.
Royal said sometimes social and emotional issues were a barrier to learning and there could be underlying issues like anxiety and depression, or violence at home.
Having a student calm and engaged through working with the horses meant they were able to better absorb what they were being taught, she said.
Forming a connection with an animal that was highly sensitive to its environment could break down barriers and provide a different learning environment.
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Henry said they didn't give the horses names when using them with students in case a particular name was associated with negative memory from the past. Students were able to give each horse a name they felt comfortable with.
While there were no guarantees the programme would work for every student, it was getting results, prompting positive feedback from teachers.
A Levin School teacher wrote a testimonial letter saying how two of her students had improved their reading markedly as a result of the eight-week course.
The teacher wanted the name of the students kept confidential, but said they were both "buzzing" when they returned to class.
One student knew 67 words by sight and could now identify 116 words, while the other student learned three new words and could identify 23 words by sight.
The latter student was struggling with the curriculum and was reluctant to go to school, but the teacher said the horse sessions had given student more confidence.
"Both children have become a lot more confident with their reading and now see themselves as readers," the teacher said.
"What does a good reader look like? It's not something that any of us have naturally."
The weekly programme was designed around an eight-week curriculum of 16 activities. They worked closely with feedback from teachers and parents through the programme to achieve the best outcomes.
"Sometimes there are particular issues we have to be aware of, like loud noises for example," she said.
It was the second Horse Powered Reading programme in New Zealand, with one already in Taupō.
Kaimanawa horses were perfect for the programme. Despite growing up wild, they were naturally quiet by nature and had experienced trauma and a process of learning themselves.