Herald Journal Herald and Journal, April 29, 2002

New therapy: horse riding

By Lynda Jensen

Running.

Dancing.

Jumping.

These things are easy for many people, but for some of Susie Bjorklund's students, it's a tall order.

That's where the horses come in.

Bjorklund, who is a licensed practical nurse, operates Freedomfarm, which is a non-profit organization that offers horse riding as a form of physical therapy, located between Waverly and Winsted.

Many of her riders are confined to wheelchairs or walkers, and seldom feel the complete freedom of movement that so many people take for granted, she said.

Freedomfarm provides services to mostly children with special needs such as cerebral palsy, autism, functional spinal curvature, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, Downs syndrome or other mental and physical disabilities.

It is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. The riding instructors are certified for therapeutic riding instruction as well.

'No machine out there can do that'

Horses mean so much more to Bjorklund's students because they allow a wide range of movement, working many groups of muscles at a time.

Physical therapy exercise machines usually only work one or two groups of muscles.

"They move you in a three dimensional way," Bjorklund said. While riding a horse, students must keep their balance and move their hips as if they were standing on the ground, she said. "No machine out there can do that."

"It is unbelievable the connection they make," she said. Horses are a natural attraction for children, she said.

Horses reach students like nothing else could, she said.

There are five horses at the farm so far: Ted Holly, Tobie, Nimbie and Sunny.

The exercises are stress-free and infuse confidence into the riders, she said.

Through the horse, rides discover a sense of independence and freedom," she said. This freedom gives a huge boost to riders and gives them extended concentration, improved self discipline, higher self esteem, enhanced emotional control and greater confidence, she said.

Bjorklund has been riding since she was 8, and teaching riders for more than 15 years.

The students help brush the horse before and after the one-hour riding session.

From there, a rider goes through a series of movements and games.

One exercise involves turning the rider around to face the horse's back. For most people, this would be easy, but this position is like doing 50 sit ups to someone with cerebral palsy, she said.

"It's therapy and they don't even know it's therapy," she said.

Therapeutic riding strengthens weak muscles in all parts of the body, relaxes and stretches spastic muscles, and assist in the development of coordination, balance, and muscle control.

Each rider requires three volunteers each during one hour riding sessions. Riders wear protective gear and a safety helmet.

Some riders graduate to only one volunteer walking by their side, she said.

There has never been an accident at Freedomfarm, she said.

Horses, which are usually donated, are carefully screened to ensure a smooth demeanor, she added. "They have to be angels."

Sometimes the weather interferes with the therapy, she said. "Inconsistent therapy means sore muscles," she commented. For this reason, Freedomfarm is working toward an indoor arena.

There is a substantial waiting list for this type of program right now, she said.

Volunteers are the mainstay of the Freedomfarm. Currently, there are 15 volunteers at the farm, but more are needed, Bjorklund said.

Volunteers help coordinate the ride, however they must go through a training session to do this. Volunteers are not asked to do maintenance or anything like that, she said.

Two training sessions will be offered next month for those interested in volunteering, Saturday, May 18, and Monday, May 20.

Those interested in participating may call (952) 955-3499.

Freedomfarm also relies on the donations of sponsors, since it offers its services at little or no charge to its participants.

Changing needs for tack, office equipment and suitable horses is always in demand.

Specific donations toward a rider may be made. Riding sessions are $35 per session.

Those interested in contributing may send it to: Freedomfarm, 11500 Ferman Ave. SW, Waverly, MN 55390


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