Farm Horizons, October 2012

Using horses for healing

By Kristen Miller

“In a riding horse, we borrow freedom,” is a quote Freedom Farm founder Susie Bjorklund of Waverly held true when she decided to help change lives by opening a therapeutic riding center in 2001.

The mission of Freedom Farm is to enrich lives by partnering with the unique attributes of the horse to improve mobility, build confidence, and encourage personal growth in children and adults with physical, mental, and emotional challenges.

Today, Freedom Farm has 60 riders, who have been referred by therapeutic doctors because they have seen positive results come from riding, explained Bjorklund.

“I continue to be amazed at the people God has brought to this place,” she commented, adding that there is a long waiting list.

There are three 8- to 11-week sessions that take place throughout the year – spring, summer and fall – roughly 90 percent of the riders attend all three sessions, she said.

The horses require special training, and Bjorklund prefers retired show horses because “they understand, once in the arena, they have a job to do.”

In fact, riders and volunteers are allowed to pet and groom the horse outside of the arena, but as soon as the horse enters the arena, it becomes a working horse, she said. “They need a clear understanding who is leading,” Bjorklund added.

Horses come for a trial period to determine if they are suitable for the job. “It takes a special horse, it really does,” Bjorklund said, adding that eight horses didn’t work for the program and they went back home. Horses are either donated to the program or purchased by Freedom Farm.

Freedom Farm works with the horses to see if they will respond when teaching a beginner rider. Also, many of the riders are secured by as many as two sidewalkers, depending on the severity of the rider’s disability and the horse needs to become accustomed to that.

The horses are worked with and led by a volunteer, both walking and trotting, often with a volunteer on each side securing an unbalanced rider on the horse’s back.

Horses also need to be comfortable with wheelchairs, walkers, and a lot of activity going on around them. In return, they receive a lot of love and individualized care, Bjorklund commented.

Volunteers go through a two-hour training process. Since Freedom Farm is accredited through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, it’s required to train its volunteers.

Currently, there are 125 volunteers. This includes leaders and sidewalkers.

Anyone can become a sidewalker, whose main job is to ensure the rider is secure on the horse at all times. The sidewalkers also encourage the rider and give direction when needed.

Bjorklund said a good sidewalker is also someone who gets to know the rider as an individual.

Though no experience is necessary to walk next to the horse and rider, Freedom Farm does need experienced horse people to be the leaders.

A good leader is a consistent horse handler, Bjorklund said. They handle the horse so that it enjoys being a therapy horse and therefore, helps provide a safe and fun lesson for all the riders, she explained.

Sandra Gould of Howard Lake has been a volunteer leader for 11 years since Freedom Farm began.

For Gould who grew up with horses, volunteering is a chance for her to be around horse once again and she likes that she is able to see how it makes a difference with the children in the program. “It’s been fun following the kids as they progress,” she said.

Freedom Farm serves individuals with a variety of diagnoses including; cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, developmental delays, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Riders come for many different reasons and the benefits vary for each rider.

Through the horse, riders discover a sense of independence and freedom, which builds their self-confidence, she explained. Children that come in with weak muscles, gain strength – some children weren’t able to sit up on their own before riding at Freedom Farm, Bjorklund testified. Through riding, they also learn how to carry out tasks and give direction.

Why do horses help? “Because [riding is] so fun,” she said. Also, horses are motivating for the riders when they realize the horse won’t move without them telling them to do so, she noted.

Healing with horses for women veterans

Having seen for herself how horses bring healing, both physically and mentally, Bjorklund decided to start a similar program for women veterans three years ago. This was a way for Freedom Farm to honor women veterans who have served our country and help them return to civilian life.

The Healing With Horses program allows veteran women to “rebuild confidence, trust, and focus through the experience of riding and a support group facilitated by a licensed psychologist.”

This is one veteran’s testimony from her Freedom Farm experiences: “For the first time since coming home, we feel safe, supported and listened to – without judgement. Brought together in this peaceful and welcoming space, we learn to trust ourselves and each other, forming unique bonds between our sisters and our horses.”

Help needed to rebuild Lake Ida Schoolhouse

Freedom Farm is looking for people willing to help with renovations of the Lake Ida Schoolhouse, which will be used as a confidential meeting place and retreat center for the Healing With Horses program.

The 1912 schoolhouse is located on Freedom Farm property, but needs some necessary renovations including plumbing, electricity, shingling, etc.

Anyone interested in donating their time to the project should contact Susie Bjorklund at (952) 955-2505.

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