EAST COUNTY — Seven-year-old Veronica Garduno squealed half in excitement, half in terror as Norman, a Haflinger pony, pushed his nose hard into the bucket she held.
Veronica stepped back, but caught her balance, as Norman’s lips found the chunks of carrots for which they were searching.
“It wasn’t scary,” Veronica said, afterward. “(It was a) little, though.”
Veronica and more than a dozen other children from Just for Girls Academy, a new girls-only charter school, ventured to the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy facility Jan. 9, to participate in a new program called “SMART GIRLS, or Girls Initiating Relationships, Leadership and Service.
The program is a collaboration between Just for Girls Academy, SMART and Performance Transformation, a company that specializes in equine-facilitated experiential learning.
While at SMART, children learned how to groom and care for the horses, as well as how horses communicate and how they should be treated.
They also spent time with Terry Murray, of Performance Transformation, and several donkeys in a round pin, where they learned about respecting the animals’ space.
“It taught me sometimes when you don’t feel comfortable, you can (say you aren’t comfortable),” 6-year-old Alana Weaver said of the experience. “My favorite part was seeing the donkeys and the horses.”
Just for Girls Academy Principal Jennifer Rosenboom said the program, which correlates with the school’s equine-facilitated learning curriculum, is helping students to overcome fears, while learning to encourage each other.
“We can learn a lot from horses,” Rosenboom said. “We’re learning empathy, compassion, to appreciate and applaud each other. We want our girls to be confident, to know where they are as learners.”
All 90 of Just for Girls Academy’s kindergarten through third-grade students have an opportunity to participate in the program, as groups of children are taken to SMART for one-and-a-half hour sessions over a six-week period.
Just for Girls Academy hopes to expand the program in future years, Rosenboom said.
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