RICE, Minn. — Brooke Belair thinks about a horse named Buck a lot, at least every day.
Just the thought of being with Buck at Sandy Knoll Farm relaxes her, 13-year-old Belair told the St. Cloud Times .
Buck became a regular part of her life last fall, when Belair started equine-assisted therapy for anxiety and depression.
“It was kind of like love at first sight,” Belair said. “[The program] gives you a feeling of hope, and it makes you happy.”
Three years ago, the equine-assisted therapy center Gaits of Hope started serving veterans and children with mental health issues. It’s Jodine Rothstein’s labor of love.
Rothstein, 53, lives at the Rice stables with her daughter’s family, on 40 acres that used to be part of her parents’ farm.
On a sunny day in late June her palomino named Maverick grazed on grass around a swing set while Pepper, a kitten Rothstein had rescued from a ditch, climbed around her shoulders.
Rothstein worked as a riding instructor for about 14 years before she launched Gaits of Hope and noticed the same horses behaved differently with different students.
“I had an obsession with horses from the day I was born,” Rothstein said. She saw that horses helped her riding students, and the horses helped her, as she was in a bad marriage.
Weeks after she learned equine therapy existed, Rothstein started training. At the time, she helped veterans with simple tasks at home and wanted to do more. She started holding workshops with veterans and horses.
“It was just something God put on my heart, to say: ‘This is what you need to do,’” she said. “That’s my mission.”
Rothstein is a certified equine specialist with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA. She watches how horses react to people for insight into their problems. Folks who let a horse push them around may have boundary issues, she said.
“My job is to ask questions,” Rothstein said. Clients groom the horses, walk them through obstacles, and sometimes groups of kids observe and discuss the horses’ behaviors with Rothstein.
Horses are good therapy animals because they’re social and they’re sensitive to their environment and non-verbal cues, according to the EAGALA website. The size and power of a horse is also part of the equation.
“We can’t just control a powerful horse,” according to EAGALA. “Approaching horses helps us reflect on how we approach our relationships, and how we can face other big or overwhelming things in our lives.”
Rothstein has about 13 horses, including two mares who work well with women managing sexual trauma.
Two minis named Murdock and Pudgy are less intimidating than larger horses for some kids. They also visit senior living centers, she said.
“They’re characters,” Rothstein said. “Like a person that’s more dramatic in their behaviors.”
White horse Annie works well with autistic children, she said. One boy was shut off, with his hood pulled up. When he finally put a hand on Annie, the horse lowered her head to him.
“She just wraps herself around them and loves on them,” Rothstein said. “She stands like a statue while they pet her.”
Eric Goodrich takes his daughter, Heidi, to Gaits of Hope and has for three years. Heidi has a close relationship with the white horse.
“She talks about Annie often, almost like she’s a friend,” Goodrich said. “It’s made her life more enjoyable, something to look forward to.”
Goodrich first brought a group of special education students to the farm and watched as they lifted up their chins and smiled. So he brought Heidi for help with her reactive attachment disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
She’d been in the mental health system since she was adopted at age 3, Goodrich said, but the horses increased the pace of her improvements.
Goodrich has been a foster parent and social worker and worked in mental health for 30 years, he said. It’s a field heavily regulated and he thinks it has lost some of its compassion and connection.
“Equine therapy isn’t that way,” Goodrich said. “It’s connecting living, breathing things with one another.”
Getting out of an office or clinic is a key element of Gaits of Hope, said Kurt Mustian, president of the nonprofit’s board and a U.S. Air Force veteran.
At the stables there’s no spotlight on veterans or therapist trying to draw something out verbally, Mustian said. “It just kind of naturally works itself out.”
A Korean War veteran recounted his experience in war for the first time after a session with a horse, and he had people weeping around him in the arena, Rothstein said.
Walking around her farm in June, she told story after story of the personal breakthroughs she witnessed with her horses.
Rothstein is starting to work with a program called HOOVES, Healing of Our Veterans Equine Services, which offers free workshops for veterans.
She thinks about the high suicide rate among veterans.
“That’s just not OK,” Rothstein said. “They’re protecting us.”
The HOOVES program and construction of a new office space are the next steps for Gaits of Hope, Rothstein said.
She also partnered with a psychologist seeking credentials to bill people’s insurance for some equine therapy sessions.
Mustian said the organization is focused on getting the word out and securing financial support.
Rothstein has done a lot of leg work, Mustian said. And her clients appreciate her. Goodrich called her a saint. Belair looks up to her.
“She has been an amazing role model to me,” Belair said about Rothstein’s cheery demeanor.
Belair’s mother has seen improvements in their months at Gaits of Hope. Jodi Belair said her daughter has become more confident and made other positive improvements.
In one session, Jodi Belair watched the horse pull away from Brooke Belair. Brooke Belair got a lesson on body language and patience. She took some deep breaths. Then Buck came to her.
Brooke Belair feels like the horses listen to us and understand.
They have helped her manage anxiety and depression, she said. “I feel about 100 percent better.”