On Thursday afternoons on the outskirts of Aitkin, it is generally quiet out in the fields.
A drive into the countryside reveals pastures, wild turkeys and their young, horses in the field and the occasional sound of a motor or an engine.
Out at River Oaks Farm, with the help of Northland Counseling Center, horses and the nature around them come together to provide a different kind of counseling.
Northland Counseling Center in Aitkin recently began offering equine therapy, using the EAGALA model – which stands for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.
The therapy does not involve riding horses, but instead being around them in a farm situation, using time and personal reflection to help counsel.
“EAGALA’s been around for quite a while,” said Miranda Skinner, part of the two-person team that provides the counseling for Northland out at the farm on Thursdays.
Skinner works with Bri Howard – Skinner as the mental health professional and Howard as the mental health practitioner and equine specialist. Both are certified to provide the counseling.
“That means she understands horse psychology, and physical cues,” Skinner said. “We each can interpret something different in the session.”
The basis of EAGALA equine therapy is fairly straightforward. People who come for the counseling are allowed to interact with the horses as they want or need. The idea is to let people experience what they will, in what Skinner said is “experiential therapy.”
“That just means that we allow the client to have their own experience,” Skinner said. “We kind of stand back so we don’t put meaning on things for them.”
The horses are not named, and genders are not discussed. Skinner said the point is to let horses – animals known for their ability to experience emotion – guide the therapy.
“A story can unfold,” Skinner said. “Horses have the really unique quality that they can pick up on emotion. They can mirror emotions.”
As a result, Skinner said, metaphors often come into play.
“The solutions can unfold in the story. People can get a lot of insight,” she said.
The key to the therapy, both say, is letting those who come in drive the experience.
“It depends on what the people are looking for,” Howard said. Added Skinner, “It’s been shown to work well because it takes the pressure off having to tell your story.”
“It takes a lot to come to a stranger and tell your story,” she explained. “(This) set-up is just so different. It’s like you’re not even telling your story directly to a person. You can tell your story to the animal.
“There’s no pressure to process with us,” she added. “There is this extra level of comfort.”
The surroundings also end up playing a part, as those who come often find relatable experiences with the farm’s barn cats, or by experiencing nature.
“Lots of things can become part of the story,” Skinner said.
With the therapy being new to the area, Skinner and Howard admit there have been a lot of questions. The hope is that people will find a comfort level in the experience, because trying to explain an experience that differs from person to person can be difficult.
“You have to experience the magic of EAGALA to really, really get it,” Skinner explained.
Right now, the equine therapy is only offered on Thursdays. EAGALA can be provided in groups or as individuals. Both are offered through Northland.
“We hope to grow that,” Skinner added.
For more information, contact Northland Counseling Center at 218-670-0005.