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First Nations students take school equine program by the reins

In fall of 2023, Tl’etinqox School students enrolled in horsemanship program

Heathly self-esteem and mental wellness are at the heart of a new equine program being offered to students at Tl’etinqox First Nation School west of Williams Lake.

After principal Clayton Grice observed the positive impacts an equine program in the community was having on some of his students he wondered if there was an opportunity to bring the program into the school.

He met with Paula Splichal who has managed the community program since the summer of 2022.

Part of the conversation was about wanting the students to access equine opportunities and learn the associated skills.

The program got underway for the school in the fall of 2023 and both Grice and Splichal are pleased with its influences.

“It builds confidence, it builds pride,” Grice said. “It’s an opportunity to commit to something and focus on something that I think is healthy and rooted in tradition and culture.”

Traditionally the Tsilhqot’in are horse people and through the program generational gaps are being bridged as youth connect with elders and parents who grew up more connected to the land and horsemanship, he said.

Students are able to go home and have a common ground to connect and communicate, he added, noting he thinks the community is very excited to hear about the program and has been very supportive.

Students arrive at school with their boots on first thing in the morning and excitedly tell Grice it is their horse day.

“They tell me, ‘I’m going to ride today.’ They know the horses’ names, they know how to take care of them, they ask myself and the teachers and staff to come down and watch them. They are very proud to show off what they have learned and their independence skills,” Grice said.

Students are also not afraid to share about being scared or nervous at the beginning either, he added.

An arena and tack room for the program are located in the community on the south side of Highway 20, not far from the school.

Each class goes once a week to ride and clean the stalls.

“They love it,” Splichal said of the students involvement. “They ask about it all the time. They do great. I have kids that come out of their shell. You see all kinds of them flourishing.”

The community also has the T7 Ranch near Alexis Lake, which opened last fall.

It is ideal for gymkhanas, trail riding and other aspects of the program, but 100 per cent of the school program happens at the main program arena across the highway, Grice said.

Through the summer months, Splichal and Wilson hire two to four students to work with them.

Wilson is the ranch hand and does the horse care and feeding, maintenance of the facility and other tasks.

Originally from Vancouver, Splichal was living in Williams Lake when she learned the job was open in July 2022.

She had been spending time in the Chilcotin, and someone from Tl’etinqox thought she would be a good fit for the position and encouraged her to reach out to the community.

There are 15 horses for the program and most of them are from Northern Alberta.

Before purchasing horses Splichal goes and test rides them to make sure they are good with children.

They bought four Appaloosa foals from Prince George two winters ago when they were five-and-a-half months old.

Having the foals has created another experience for the children because they have been handling them and will be able to train them and ride them first.

Parents and adults are also becoming more interested in the program as well.

In March, Splichal started a ladies riding group for women to do trail riding.

She has hosted events for other schools to attend and taken students to gymkhanas, such as in Williams Lake and other areas.

“To build on the ladies night she hosted a bring-a-parent-to-horse-program night that was really successful. We had a barbecue. The students were showing their parents their skills and getting their parents on the horses,” Grice said. “It was a really nice thing to see.”

Funding comes from the Tl’etinqox Government through funding such as prevention through health and cultural programming, Grice said.

The school has 56 students and goes from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

“We have been slowing adding a grade a year and have six students in Grade 11 this year. In order to do things properly, as there are challenges with housing and getting teachers, so we’ve taken our time. Our first grad class will be starting Grade 12 in September.”

Splichal and a group of the school’s equine program and photography students went to the Championship of Champions Indian Relay Races in Casper, Wyoming in September 2023.

“It built on the excitement of getting back on the land and forming these important skills,” Grice said.

Grice said some of the other Tsilhqot’in schools are developing equine programs as well, and some in the Kamloops area are interested.

“I have had some opportunities to speak with principals who are also part of the First Nations Schools Association and we’ve talked about the successes and challenges and all the pieces that come with our program,” he said. “I think there are opportunities out there.”

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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