Students Saddle Up During Summer Social Skills Program

A student prepares to mount a horse at the SIRE complex outside of Hockley, Texas.

A student prepares to mount a horse at the SIRE complex outside of Hockley, Texas.

As both the humidity and temperature rose on a recent Wednesday morning, 15 HISD students stepped off their yellow bus from the city and into a horse-riding arena skirting the Waller and Montgomery county lines. They had come to SIRE, Houston’s Therapeutic Equestrian Center, as part of the district’s social-skills enrichment program for those with autism.

Interaction with the horses has multiple benefits for people with mental or physical challenges, said P.J. Murray, head instructor at SIRE’s Hockley location. The non-profit group has been operating in the Houston area for 30 years, working with riders as young as three years old.

A brief conversation ensued as the students registered, beginning with a greeting from the woman behind a table.

“Good morning!” she said.

“Good morning. Hello. My name is…,” the student said with some hesitation.

That singular moment was a tiny victory for Demetrice Kelly-Basile, a teacher in HISD’s Office of Special Education. There would be many such moments throughout the morning, as the students rode horses and learned how to lead and properly groom their new equine friends.

“It can help them with self-confidence, and it may help them with mobility,” said Kelly-Basile. “The interaction with the horses and horseback therapy has proven to be beneficial to students with special needs. It’s very important for our students to generalize the skills they learn in the classroom in other settings.”

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After fitting students with helmets and giving them an introduction to horse interaction, the riders were guided through the arena by SIRE staff and volunteers. The students learned how to properly ride and address the animals before heading out to an obstacle course, where they were led across bridges, around slalom poles, and under hanging pool noodles.

“The thing that has made me happy is the smiles on the students’ faces,” said Kelly-Basile. “They were all excited about coming out and riding.”

For some students, though, working with horses is nothing new.

Baylor, who will start eighth grade this fall at Pershing Middle School, said he has ridden horses in the past. Riding helped him gain confidence, he said, especially after being bullied for his short stature and cropped red hair.

Baylor and his classmates were one of three groups attending the equine therapy sessions that day. The other two groups were at SIRE’s centers in Spring and Fort Bend.

While this was the first visit to SIRE for the social-skills enrichment group, the HISD program has been steadily expanding for six years, said Kelly-Basile, who has seen the summer session grow from a handful of students to multiple classes of secondary-age students.

“The whole goal is when these students return to school, we want them to be in the least restrictive environment,” she said.

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