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Healing with Horses
In Waverly, Minnesota, women veterans who have returned from duty are finding the support and friendship essential to their recovery from the wounds, both emotional and physical, they sustained in combat. This healing is being achieved not primarily because of therapy but thanks to the horses at Freedom Farm.
Executive Director, Susie Bjorklund explains that, “Freedom Farm is a therapeutic riding center. We offer therapeutic riding, which is also known as adaptive riding for children and adults with all types of special needs and we also have a program for women veterans.”
Their program for women veterans, aptly named Healing with Horses and which is free to the participants, began three years ago after Bjorklund decided she wanted to create a program for veterans. While at first Bjorklund envisioned a mix of men and women attending, with perhaps more men, she was surprised to find that it was women who most needed and accepted the program.
“We've found that there is no place for just women veterans to go,” says Bjorklund. “They have a harder time feeling accepted at the local VA and they needed a place for them to feel safe and a place where they can heal.”
Healing with Horses now has six women participants who meet at the farm each week on Thursday. “They arrive at 9am and they're with a licensed psychologist for a two-hour … group sharing time and then they come to the barn with me for another two to three hours where they get their horse,” explains Bjorklund.
While working with the horses, the women will “groom, saddle, some of them will ride and enjoy riding the horse together.” For those who are in too much physical pain that day, they will groom their horse and then work on grounding with horse, “getting herself centered and doing some massage with the horse.”
The benefits of working with horses are many, from simply being around the horses and grooming them, which gives them a deep sense of calm and peace, to riding their horse, which keeps their minds on the moment and is an excellent physical workout and therapy. “They're working on finding joy minute by minute. They're working on feeling that are part of society and can contribute,” says Bjorklund.
Each minute of their time spent at Freedom Farm every week is part of their healing. “As the women are getting their horses ready for the ride, they are learning a skill which they have to be mindful about. But it is a methodical skill that they have to remember each step [for] and also be looking out for each other and also be aware of the horse's cues that they are giving them.”
Overall, the whole experience is a great confidence builder. Layne Beckman, a participant, explains that “I didn't know what to expect when I first got here, I was pretty reserved, quiet… I've become a lot more confident and I've become a whole lot more quiet internally.” It is that inner peace, as well as the audible silence, that helps the women calm their minds and focus on the day-to-day rather than flashing back to painful memories.
The effect that these horses and this friendship group have on these women is profound. The calm they can achieve while in the presence of their horse is visible and from the moment they arrive, often emotional after their group session, they gradually being to relax as they start grooming their horse.
“To get that peace is something that they had been working on in typical therapies and when they come to Freedom Farm and are next to this massive animal and sometimes just placing their hand on that horse's neck or back and the horse will sigh or they'll lower their head and they'll respond immediately to that person.”
The relaxation they get from grooming and massaging their horse is certainly not the only benefit they experience at Freedom Farm. Bjorklund says that while riding, the women are “learning to feel their whole body again and that has opened up a lot of emotion but a lot of chance just to feel.”
“Horses have so many unique qualities that we partner with their special individual personalities,” says Bjorklund. “A horse is such a massive animal and one of the big things that the women veterans are working on is being mindful, being in the moment, not letting the flitting thoughts of war or other situations affect their every day.”
The friendships the women have built have become as important as their relationships with the horses. They now carpool with each other, have lunch after their time at the farm, and even go on fishing trips together. It provides them the support they need, a support that they are unable to get from other friends.
For participant Kay Mitzner, the program means a great deal. “Without them I don't know if I'd be here because I was in such a horrible state when I first got here, dealing with PTSD to the point where it was affecting my vision and hearing,” she says.
Mitzner explains that she feels a deep sense of gratitude for her time with her horse, as do all the women. Since she started, her connection with her horse has grown and she appreciates him even more than when she started. As she says, “when I arrived, I didn’t see him but he saw me.”
The participants all appreciate the sixth sense the horses seem to possess which is to be able to tell which person in the room needs the most support at that time. The unspoken connection that builds up between rider and horse is even more important for these women whose daily lives have become so unpredictably affected by combat.
Bjorklund's drive to keep the program going is clear and the reward comes from changing these women's lives. “It is my hope that each day that the veterans leave Freedom Farm that they know that they are loved, that they know that they are so special to everyone in the group and outside of Freedom Farm, that they have something so awesome to contribute and it's my prayer that they feel that joy.”