Equine therapy program helps put people in touch with selves, others

A group of nine determined young professionals from Olmsted County stood eye to eye with three equally determined horses at the farm of Laraine Lekander of Mahtowa on Tuesday. Their charge - to in some way coax the horses into the centers of thre...

A group of nine determined young professionals from Olmsted County stood eye to eye with three equally determined horses at the farm of Laraine Lekander of Mahtowa on Tuesday. Their charge - to in some way coax the horses into the centers of three squared off enclosures without touching, bribing or leading the animals or communicating in any way with others on the team. "Equine Billiards" is what Lekander called it, and those participating in the exercise found it far more difficult a task than any of them ever imagined.

In the end, the exercise was not about "winning," or even about succeeding, but rather about the way people chose to go about accomplishing the task, working together, following rules - and yes, thinking outside the box.

The exercise was part of an innovative new training program based on the principles of a group known as EAGALA - Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. A non-profit organization, EAGALA incorporates human/horse experiences to promote emotional growth and learning through equine assisted psychotherapy techniques. It's not, however, a riding program, nor is it a horsemanship program.

Lekander, a horse professional and founder of "Stable Thinking," part of an adult dispute resolution service, has teamed together with licensed therapist Mary Thomas of Winds of Change Counseling Service of Cloquet to facilitate the local program.

"It's a great way for me to be able provide a useful professional service and at the same time work with a hobby I love," said Lekander.


Not only does the EAGALA program aim to provide an interesting and fun therapeutic alternative for clients, but past results nationwide have proven it to be both powerful and effective.

"Some of the breakthroughs we've seen have been extremely exciting," attested Thomas.

The EAGALA philosophy outlines the many aspects of equine therapy that makes working with horses so valuable.

"Horses require work, whether in caring for them or working with them," the program's Web site ( ) details. "In an era when immediate gratification and the 'easy way' are the norm, horses require people to be engaged in physical and mental work to be successful, a valuable characteristic in all aspects of life."

Tuesday's session included a team of employees from DFO (Dodge, Fillmore, Olmsted) Community Corrections that formed an Interactive Conflict Response Program within their workplace.

"Our mission is to improve communication and address conflict through options that promote understanding and diversity in our workplace," explained team participant Alison Otte. "We hope to carry out our mission by ensuring that there are effective and efficient conflict resolution alternatives within our workplace and to equip staff with enhanced conflict resolution skills."

Previous to Tuesday's equine session, Paul Mickelson and Lekander trained the group on the Transformative Mediation Model of conflict resolution, and they have continued to provide ongoing consultation throughout the group's quest to get this new program up and running. The EAGALA training was an additional tool used in helping the group identify the obstacles and achievements encountered thus far in the implementation of their program. And though working interactively with Lekander's horses may have seemed an unlikely exercise in peer mediation, it did teach them some valuable lessons about working together against "equine odds."

"The horses just didn't want to do it!" reacted one frustrated participant midway through the group's assignment to get the horses to walk inside the bounds of the designated pockets. "They don't trust us...."


"I don't think we were given enough time [by group leader Lekander] to build rapport with them," said another.

"The rule against allowing us to talk with one another made things seem awkward and frustrating," concluded another. "We were never really able to find our groove."

When Lekander loosened up on the rules of the exercise and allowed participants to have more of a say in setting new policies and boundaries, she asked them to concentrate more on what they can, instead of what they can't, do.

And sure enough, though the horses still refused to walk inside the boundary lines for the group members, the participants took it upon themselves to work together and "think outside the box" - by dismantling the PVC piping that comprised one of the square pockets and repositioning it around the horses!

While EAGALA training is especially helpful in working with folks in the clinical and human development fields, Lekander said it can also be extremely effective with probationary clients, schools, workplace teams, youth and families in addressing such things as boundary, fear and trust issues.

Lekander will work with groups from the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School and the Carlton County R.E.A.C.H. program in coming weeks, and she said she hopes the program will experience growing awareness and success throughout the state.

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