When Freedom Farm director Susie Bjorklund began pursuing the idea of starting a program for military veterans at the therapeutic riding center a number of years ago, her assumption was that it would be a program for both men and women.
But after talking with a number of veterans, Bjorklund says she began to understand the great need for programs aimed specifically at women. That led to the creation of Freedom Farm’s Healing with Horses program 3 years ago, a program that Bjorklund says can be hugely beneficial in helping returning veterans grow re-accustomed to civilian life. While veterans programs at therapeutic riding centers are not a new concept, Bjorklund says Freedom Farm is the first to offer one specifically for women.
“There was a more of a need for a place for women to go,” Bjorklund said of the decision to start the program. “A lot of female veterans are not necessarily getting the help they need from organizations that offer things for men and women.”
Bjorklund said many female veterans return from active duty and experience loss of confidence, ability to trust, difficulty focusing on tasks and difficulty transitioning from their military past to their civilian present. She said the unique attributes of horses gently help women veterans overcome the obstacles of their return to civilian life in multiple ways.
“Horses are such large, intuitive animals,” Bjorklund said. “They can bring out the best in you, and part of them being so big is when you’re around them, you’re naturally being mindful of the fact that you have to be aware.”
Bjorklund said this is especially important for veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. She said veterans struggling to overcome the disorder are working hard to focus on daily tasks and not let the fleeting thoughts ruin so many moments of their lives. Bjorklund said being with a horse guides them and teaches them to focus on the task at hand.
“When you’re working on being focused, or being in the present, when you’re with a horse, it naturally helps you do that,” Bjorklund said. “When you do that hour after hour, week after week, it starts to carry over into your daily life.”
There are currently six veterans who take part in the free, weekly program. Participants first gather for group sharing time facilitated by a licensed psychologist during each session, and then spend several hours with Bjorklund and the horses in the afternoon. For some, just being around the horses provides the benefits they seek, but for others, actually riding the horses is even more beneficial.
“For those that can, the riding opens up a whole new avenue of being able to feel your body,” Bjorklund said. “I have a great understanding of how a rider’s body affects the horse, and how the horse’s body affects the rider. In putting all that together, they’re gaining a great skill of learning how to ride, which builds confidence.”
The Healing with Horses program was the recent recipient of a $13,000 grant from Veterans 4 Veterans, which will cover about a third of the annual $43,000 cost of the program. Bjorklund said she was very grateful for the donation.
“We decided money or no money, we’re going to keep doing (the program) no matter what,” Bjorklund said. “After 3 years, we’ve been able to prove success, which is the reason we got the endorsement. That is just a huge honor. It takes quite a bit to get that, so it was very exciting for us.”
As part of the program, Freedom Farm hopes to begin making use of the old Lake Ida Schoolhouse on its property. The hope is that the schoolhouse can provide a private meeting place for the group instead of the cramped office they are currently using, and also serve as a sort of retreat for the women. Bjorklund said Freedom Farm is currently looking for anybody that can donate labor or money to make renovations to the building so that the program to continue to grow.
“In order for this program to expand, that is the one piece we want to get moving on,” Bjorklund said.