By Melissa Priebe
Scene in the West Metro
At an unassuming ranch just south of Waverly, Minnesota, personal transformation is happening on a daily basis.
That’s where Susie Bjorklund runs Freedom Farm, a therapeutic riding center she founde d in 2000. For 16 years, she has been working with people who face physical, mental or emotional challenges, in order to improve their mobility, build confidence and encourage personal growth.
“We started the Therapeutic Riding Program to help people, whether children or adults, with all sorts of abilities,” said Bjorklund, who also works as the executive director. Bjorklund has been a riding instructor and trainer for over 20 years, and she is a licensed practical nurse.
She partners each horse with a rider, and with the help of a handful of volunteers, leads the rider through exercises in balance, movement and expression.
The horses are trained therapy horses, usually retired show horses, who offer their support as each rider works to conquer an array of personal challenges. To facilitate the therapy sessions, three volunteers work with each horse and rider, making the therapeutic riding a robust program.
“It’s all about the horses,” says Bjorklund. “I always have a goal or a lesson of the day, but I come to work never knowing what is actually going to happen.”
Every session is different, but often the programs involve simply greeting the horses, leading the horses through the farmland and riding the horses. That, on its own, is often enough to inspire a change. For some people, the calming sensation of riding a horse offers relief. For others, the physical aptitude of maintaining their balance or using skillful communication to deliver commands is the ticket. For others still, following a simple three-step instruction makes a world of difference with their mental rehabilitation.
“Learning to ride a horse, you have to get really tuned in to your body,” says Bjorklund. “We adapt the saddles and the reins to what is going to work for each rider.”
Many dialogues also take place around the ride, offering insight and solutions for daily life. Bjorklund has been around horses all her life, and she can tell you first-hand what the large animals bring to the table. At 1,200 pounds, the animals are strong, sensitive and intelligent. When they are respected, they are patient, graceful beings. But they are vigilant creatures too, always weary of a bad attitude.
“They mirror your demons,” said Bjorklund. “The anger in some of these teens is so strong that they put up their guard and won’t let it down. Then they see how the horse responds.”
The Therapeutic Riding Program is just one of the programs Freedom Farm offers. A second program, called Healing with Horses, caters to veterans and active duty service members who suffer from anxiety, stress or post traumatic stress disorder. There’s also Hope with Horses, a program geared to at-risk teens that offers young people support as they work toward the achievement of high school graduation.
“The teens usually come to us because they are failing so completely in every aspect of their life,” said Bjorklund. “When they get on the horse, they have to stop the negativity and pay attention. That’s when you start to see the empowerment and the confidence. It’s really beautiful how the horse just allows that to happen, in a completely natural way.”
Bjorkland says riding a horse is more than an exercise. It requires confidence, clear communication and respect for those around you. The act of riding a horse often results in a sort of mindfulness, a willingness to let go of stress and anxiety and be present, fully immersed in the moment. After all, if a horse detects uncertainty or anger in its rider, it could drop everything and head for the hills.
Bjorklund tells the story of one teenager who came to Freedom Farm, seemingly determined to make the experience a failed attempt at conflict resolution. The instructor asked the teen to simply go get the horse and bring him back to her. The teen stormed out into the field, and the horse refused to interact at all, sensing the anger that was bubbling below the surface. Finally, the teen changed their attitude, nearly giving up and letting out a big sigh. The horse stopped everything. It turned its head, paying attention to the teen and becoming responsive to commands.
It’s evident how much Bjorklund cares about her riders in her voice. When she speaks, she often adopts the collective “we” to describe her experiences.
“Now we’re not alone,” Bjorkland says, referring to the teen and the horse. “That makes a big difference. I could tell you a hundred stories like that. It’s really beautiful to watch.”
The riding sessions are often followed by a debrief, a chance for volunteers to ask the rider how they are doing, and what they experienced as they worked with the horse. With at-risk youth especially, the discussions are a big part of the programming.
“For the teens, we talk about respect, and choices, and nonverbal communication, and who’s in your paddock,” says Bjorklund.
She asks the teens questions like “Who’s in your paddock that brings you down?” The question helps her get to the bottom of personal issues, such as why a teen feels rejected. Out of the discussions come the opportunity for teens to relate to one another, to empathize with the powerful animals they ride, to understand what is stressing them out.
“Advocating for themselves is a big one,” said Bjorklund. “We identify why they’re failing and talk about how they can work with their parents or their teachers to resolve the issue.”
Bjorklund tries not to concentrate on numbers. She is more concerned with qualitative data. But the stories coming out of Freedom Farm are evidence that the program is working. Many people who start out as riders turn their life around, then come back to the farm to serve as volunteers.
For veterans, too, the programs have made a world of difference.
“Many are navigating through PTSD,” says Bjorklund. “It robs them of their joy. That’s where Healing with Horses comes in.”
The horses, many who have been at Freedom Farm for a long time, usually work about six to eight years before they retire. Most of them are retired show horses, and when they arrive on the farm they are already in their late teens. Favorites like Cassie form bonds with the other horses: Irish, Stella and Echo. It takes a lot of volunteers and a lot of financial resources to keep the operation running. Care for the horses, who take the weekends off, can be expensive.
“This is usually their last job,” says Bjorklund. “It keeps them happy mentally and physically without overworking them. Consistency is so important. They are the foundation of our program.”
The nonprofit organization hopes to avoid raising its program fees, and Bjorklund tries not to turn anyone away, even if they can’t afford fees of around $130 per week. With a full schedule, there’s a wait list for Freedom Farm programs.
Still, Bjorklund feels privileged that she gets to do what she loves every day. She first encountered therapeutic riding when she was 19 years old, and she held onto the dream.
“God put it in my heart, and then several years later, I was able to make it happen,” says Bjorklund.
“Because of this event, we are able to keep serving more people,” says Bjorklund. “You can come as fun and dressy as you want, or as casual as you want. The polo teams come to win. The match is intense, and it is a lot of fun to watch.”
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