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Nov. 25, 2013: Dawn Johns Swenson, right, gets help from her sister Jewel Root running Flying Horses Stables in rural La Crosse, Wis.

Peter Thomson, AP/La Crosse Tribune

Wisconsin sisters offer therapy with horse power

  • Article by: ALLISON GEYER
  • Associated Press
  • December 16, 2013 - 3:20 AM

LA CROSSE, Wis. — When breast cancer survivor Dawn Johns Swenson was in the heat of her chemotherapy treatments, she found solace in the pasture.

The time she spent with her horse, a thoroughbred named Eddie, was safe, emotionally healing and stress-relieving.

"Horses are empathetic and emotional," Swenson said. "There's nothing like a horse hug to make you feel better."

An animal prized for its utility, beauty and companionship, horse and human have lived and worked together for thousands of years. Symbols of freedom, wildness and mystical energy, the horse is as beloved in art and literature as it is on the farm.

But it was the healing power of horses that drove Swenson and her sister, Jewel Johns Root, to found the region's only accredited equine facilitated mental health program at the 156-year-old farm east of La Crosse.

Flying Horse Stables is home to 10 therapy horses and five credentialed specialists who help hundreds of clients work through emotional and mental health disorders, the La Crosse Tribune ) reported.

"It's amazing how horses can sense what people are feeling," Root said. "The horse really is the therapist."

With backgrounds in education and their connection to the farm that had been in their family for six generations, the transition into horse therapy was a natural, said Swenson, who prior to running Flying Horse had spent eight years at Logan High School as a school psychologist and also worked in the Black River Falls and Boscobel school districts.

"The pieces just fell into place," she said.

Root, who is also a certified riding instructor, has a degree in K-3 education and taught school in Minnesota and commutes to the farm from her home outside the Twin Cities.

Swenson and Root have worked with adults and children from a variety of groups, including La Crosse County Human Services, New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Center, youth at-risk programs as well as private clients.

"They're so patient and very thoughtful in the way that they let their clients go at their own pace," said Christin Skolnik, administrator of the La Crosse County Comprehensive Community Services program. "I think they're really creative in the way that they are able to help people bring about change."

Equine facilitated therapy is particularly helpful for patients with emotional or communicative disorders. At Flying Horse, clients are working to overcome problems like post traumatic stress disorder, anger management, depression, anxiety; others have worked through eating disorders, sexual assault, attention deficit disorder and autism spectrum disorders.

La Crosse resident Robin Peterson has been a client of Flying Horse Stables for about five years, working mainly with an Arabian horse named Black Russian. Referred to the program by the La Crosse County Aging and Disability Resource Center, Peterson said horse therapy has helped her in ways that traditional therapy could not.

"Humans expect us to be strong and not show our feelings, but Russian just expects me to be his friend," Peterson said.

Through the process of building trust with the horse and developing a close relationship based on mutual respect and unconditional love, Peterson has worked to overcome issues like PTSD, drug habits and negativity.

"I've become a stronger person," Peterson said. "I'm able to say 'no' and mean it."

 

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by La Crosse Tribune

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