MIDDLEBURY — One local school district is working with a local organization for youth to ensure the mental health of students by developing a therapeutic horse barn. 

“We see kids that are stressed in ways we’ve never seen before in the last five or six years,” Middlebury Superintendent Jane Allen said. “That doesn’t matter as much as figuring out how we can help them learn to manage it themselves.” 

To help combat this issue, Middlebury Community Schools recently joined with Boys & Girls Club to create a therapeutic horse barn they’re calling Stable Grounds.

“We have a lot of teachers who have never seen these kinds of manifestations so we need to spend some time trying to figure out something different,” Allen said. “I do honestly believe this is nationwide, not just Middlebury. We haven’t seen what these students are displaying before. We have no tricks in our bag.”

The program, accredited by Eagala, an equine-assisted psychotherapy and personal development organization, will have certified miniature horses and donkeys onsite that therapists will use to help students learn to cope with mental health issues.

The idea comes from Heritage Intermediate School therapist Kori Cline.

“It’s definitely something we see as a need in our schools,” Cline sa id. “If we don’t address the barriers to learning then they’re never going to learn what they need to learn in a school setting.”

Cline is certified in a program she operates from her own stable at home.

“I was raised with horses so this went together naturally for me,” she said.

She’s been working with a partner in the program for nearly seven years.

“Our high school students have named stress as one of their highest concerns and not knowing how to manage everything, being able to multitask and things,” she said. “We want to be proactive and help if we have students here that have those issues.”

When the school board began considering ways to help students with mental health concerns, once of the more difficult problems to navigate was the fact that counselors are only allowed three individual visits per child per year.

“We have a lot of responsibility as educators to deal with things we have no control over,” Allen said. “Our goal is to provide students a space to feel safe and learn some coping strategies and how to deal with anxiety and fear and depression and all those things.”

The new counseling facility, a barn past the soccer fields, will have a mental health counselor, and a counselor who is also certified in equine therapy training. A donor is already prepared to construct the new building, and Cline has volunteered to donate her own miniature horses and donkeys for the program.

Inside an arena, the eight horses and donkeys will be the hosts of the program. Rather than riding them as clients do at Loveway, emotionally at-risk students interact with the animals with the support of the professionals to reflect, project and make connections that help them learn to deal with the difficult emotions they may be harboring.

“I know mental health has always had a stigma attached but we live in a scary time so we need to help kids find solutions while students are with us to help them cope with adulthood,” Allen said.

Therapists, granted permission by the parents, will take at-risk students by bus to the location for regular therapy sessions during the school day. As a licensed therapist, Cline believes leaving emotional difficulties unresolved can make learning nearly impossible for youth so addressing problems within school is valuable for teachers as well as students.

“You have to make a well rounded kid so that they leave us and do great things,” Cline said. 

Permits are still being gathered and preparation is far from over, but already the board for Stable Grounds has raised $500,000 for construction of the building, which it hopes to have open in 2021.

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