Equine assisted therapy on Rice family farm brings hope to many

By Mollie Rushmeyer, Correspondent

Jodine Rothstein of Rice, is the owner of Gaits of Hope, an equine assisted learning and therapy program on her farm, Sandy Knoll Farm. This non-profit program helps veterans and children in need with many different behavioral, emotional, physical and cognitive issues.

Jodine Rothstein of Rice, has always known horses were special, even before she opened her equine assisted learning and therapy program, Gaits of Hope. She had observed for years her horses’ innate ability to sense emotions and their uncanny calming effect on people.

Two years ago, Rothstein started her non-profit program at her farm and residence, Sandy Knoll Farm in Rice, following her certification in horse therapy and said the way things came together was truly ‘divine.’       “This was very God-led,” Rothstein said. “God gave me this building (the horse arena), and I want to share it with people.”

Her carefully chosen 11 therapy horses first worked in her veteran’s program to help with depression, anxiety, anger issues, PTSD and physical pain. Then last summer, she began a children’s program for those kids working with the county or their school’s social worker(s) who may have behavior issues, learning disabilities, autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorders as well as help with a myriad of other issues.

Rothstein said there is something so powerful about the give and take between horse and human, and so much people can learn from these beautiful creatures.

Her therapy horses aren’t necessarily chosen because they are docile, but rather chosen for the personalities they have — be it energetic, calm, inquisitive, stand-offish, et cetera. Though safety is always paramount, she said. She will never put a person in a risky situation. But the horses have personalities all their own, she said, a lot like humans, and this makes horses a great tool for learning how to read body language, boundaries, behave in a way that elicits trust from others and much more.

Two of Jodine Rothstein’s, left, therapy ponies helped out during a recent children’s equine assisted therapy session, as well as her volunteer, Kris Schlichting of Rice, right.

For private riding lessons and business team building activities, people can contact Rothstein for prices. But thanks to grants, she’s able to offer Gaits of Hope sessions for free to those who need them.

Rothstein said she works hard to create different activities appropriate for each of her groups and often uses them as metaphors for what may be going on in the participants’ own lives, as well as provide a safe space for them to talk.

During a recent “Thoroughbred Thursday” kids’ program, Rothstein had activities planned for the children that focused on cooperation, setting healthy boundaries and communication. The kids worked together to groom the animals as well as talked about nutrition and feeding the horses as a lead-in to the topic of self-care and who cares for them in their own lives.

One of Rothstein’s volunteers, Kris Schlichting of Rice, was present for the June 22 kid’s therapy class. Schlichting is a former social worker for Morrison County and is now, as Rothstein said, her right hand with the kids program.

“Kris (Schlichting) walked into my open house and she said she didn’t know why she was here,” Rothstein said. “But I did.”

Because Schlichting spent many years working with troubled youth, she is able to give Rothstein insight into the kids’ behavior and what their needs may be, Rothstein said.

During one activity involving hula hoops, the kids learned that not only do horses have personal “bubbles,” so do people. One young participant, Zoe Montury, 13, of Foley/Sauk Rapids, said she learned about body language, what it means and ways to respond appropriately through working with the horses.

Another activity involved an obstacle course, in which the kids learned about the role of communication in cooperating and working together with others in a team. The first time the kids led one of the two ponies through the course, they had to work together without talking to make it to the finish line. On the second trip through, they were able to talk to one another.

One of Rothstein’s other volunteers, Eric Goodrich of Royalton and current social worker for the Royalton School District, said the first trip was chaotic and that shut everybody down, even the ponies. Goodrich related the experience to how it may be in their home lives sometimes—when things get too chaotic and there’s no communication, and they might shut down.

To the group, Rothstein said, “What happens at home when you shut down?”

Several children said things like: cry, scream, throw things. On the second time, when they could communicate to get the pony where they needed to go, everyone agreed that working together was much easier.

Schlichting later said she has seen so much progress with the children who come out to the farm.

“Many times, they are able to talk about things here they can’t in a one-on-one session with an adult,” Schlichting said.

Not to discount talk therapy, Schlichting said, as it certainly has its place. But if a child has not had success with other interventions or adults just want more variety of help, she said exploring the equine assisted therapy is certainly worth it. She said there’s just something about working with these emotionally intelligent animals, learning their personalities as they in turn learn the kids’ and the cooperation and communication that happens during these specially designed activities that does something a one-on-one meeting can’t.

“The horses can just sense things and pick up on things,” Rothstein said. “And they can understand more than we even let on.”

That intelligence and their honesty and distinct personalities, many believe make them an ideal conduit for emotional, physical and cognitive healing.