Every Wednesday, 4-year-old Ellie Soderberg attends an occupational therapy session. She puts on a small purple helmet, swings her leg over the back of a 1,500-pound chestnut horse named Whisper and starts a 45-minute session of activities and exercises.
Janet Weisberg walks alongside Whisper, talking with Ellie, guiding her through stretches, bubble blowing and adapted games of bowling and horseshoes. The work has improved the young girl's core body strength, posture, speech and focus over the last year.
"Horses are really my equipment and kind of like my co-workers," Weisberg said as she walked out to the paddocks at a stable near Maple Plain, in western Hennepin County. "They are the ones that make this program what it is."
Weisberg, an occupational therapist, is executive director of Hold Your Horses, an equine-assisted therapy program she started in 2006 and established as a nonprofit five years later.
The program has moved a couple of times in the past few years, going from one private facility to another.
Now the program is moving again, this time to its new home near Greenfield.
"We are thrilled to have our own place that will allow us to expand intentionally," Weisberg said.
When she found out that the lease at the Maple Plain stable would not be renewed, she had six months to find a new home.
After Weisberg had scouted about 25 possibilities and ruled out many, a property owner contacted her and offered a half-sale, half-donation of a 69-acre property just 15 minutes from the existing facility.
The new place has a heated indoor arena and plenty of space — enough to expand the program and add more horses to the current team of six.
"The footprint of this place really wouldn't have been too different from what we would have designed ourselves," Weisberg said of the property she will move to in mid-August. "It's really going to allow us to complete our mission with only our own agenda."
Not a 'New Age' thing
In addition to occupational therapy, Hold Your Horses offers horse-assisted psychotherapy.
Molly DePrekel, a psychologist with Cairns Psychological Services, leads sessions for teenage girls recovering from abuse and trauma.
DePrekel sees the horse as a way to teach clients about reconnecting their body and mind after trauma. The horse helps reinforce ideas about personal boundaries, body language, anger management and relaxation techniques.
In her work, DePrekel focuses on the science behind the neurobiology of trauma. Touching a horse, learning how to calm it, can create "mirror neurons" that calm the client as well, she said.
DePrekel sometimes has clients just lie on the horse's back, listening to, feeling and trying to match the animal's deep breaths. That's often when long-held tension is released and the tears come.
"If they can calm a 1,500-pound animal, they can do that for themselves, too," she said.
Using horses in therapy isn't a "New Age" thing, DePrekel said. People with emotional and behavioral issues long were sent to farms, and the work with animals often proved therapeutic, she said.
"I take traditional therapy and apply it in moment-to-moment interactions in the presence of a horse," DePrekel said. "Horses are an additive to traditional therapy."
One girl said that knowing how to relax a horse helped her go back to sleep after night terrors. Another girl told DePrekel that her work with the horse made her reflect on the way she approaches interactions with her mother.
Weisberg is adamant that the sessions are not about riding. Though clients often get to ride, that's not the focus.
"We are here as a professional team offering best-practices therapy," she said.
'Feeling of empowerment'
Weisberg and DePrekel hope to expand their therapy offerings at the new facility, working as a team to develop restorative wellness sessions for caretakers, probation officers, social workers and others who work in often emotionally taxing professions.
"If these people don't recharge their battery, it can go dead," DePrekel said. "We want to give them a chance to take a break and heal with nature and animals, too."
The upcoming move is exciting, but it comes with its own challenges, Weisberg said. Moving thousands of pounds of animals and equipment will require volunteer help. Even so, she is thrilled to keep showing people the power of working with animals.
"Horses just give you that feeling of empowerment," she said. "I just think that everyone with disabilities or mental illness should have that feeling."
A mother's discovery
That's why Kari Soderberg keeps sending her daughter Ellie to the barn.
After Ellie was diagnosed at birth with Cri du Chat syndrome, a chromosomal condition that causes developmental delays, Soderberg started researching. That's when the mother who had little exposure to horses first read about using them for therapy. "I immediately knew I wanted Ellie to try it," she said.
In a year of sessions, Soderberg has seen her daughter grow stronger and more confident. She often comes home repeating the names of her favorite horses: Whisper and Yosi.
"I'm so thankful I found Hold Your Horses," she said. "And I'm so excited they are getting a new home — they definitely deserve it."