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Naomi Nelson and Stacy Gustafson stand with two of the eight horses they use in their equine therapy practice near Ideal Corners. - photo by Bill Monroe

Horses Help Transform Therapy at New Area Clinic

Web posted June 12, 2018
By Bill Monroe, Northland Press Correspondent

Transforming therapy through horses. That’s the goal of Stacy Gustafson, founder of Changing Strides Therapy, an equine therapy clinic located near Ideal Corners.

This is not your typical mental health clinic. This clinic is located on a beautiful 25-acre plot. It features a huge newly constructed 60 foot by 120 foot indoor riding arena and an outdoor area bordered by a new white fence as well as a 1,600 square foot clinic office which features several types of clinic rooms and a group therapy room that looks more like someone’s very comfortable living room than something you’d expect to find in a clinic setting. And there are eight horses assisting in the therapy sessions.

Gustafson is a licensed clinical counselor specializing in children and family therapy. She is also a certified equine assisted therapist following the model of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (Eagala), the leading association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs.

That model is a team approach that includes a credentialed mental health professional and a qualified equine specialist and horses working together with a client at all times. Most of the therapy practiced involves more than one person in a family. Gustafson is joined by Naomi Nelson, a graduate student who plans to join the practice full-time upon graduation. Gustafson and Nelson are always in the arena with the clients.

Once they all get into one of the two arenas, all of the therapy work is done on the ground with the horses playing a primary role, never ridden and deliberately unhindered. They are allowed to interact with the clients as they wish. This creates opportunities for the clients, with the help of the two professionals, to reflect, project and make deep connections.

And it works.

Gustafson worked for several years with the Northern Pines Mental Health Center working with students in the Pine River School system. There she soon learned that students were much more willing to open up when they were allowed to leave the school building to talk about their issues away from their normal environment.

She grew up around horses in the Park Rapids area and while she was in grad school, her mentor asked her if she would like to research equine assisted therapy which she quickly agreed to do.

Four years ago she and her husband started looking for land and found a spot at 10010 Strawberry Lake Road. It has a Pequot Lakes address but it’s closer to Ideal Corners. They purchased the land and started to remodel and build new structures to create what is now their clinic complex. They live in what she calls the caretaker’s cottage, a new two-story home near the clinic building.

The doors to the clinic opened in January for a soft opening and an open house was held this spring. Gustafson said she is pleased with the growth of her practice. “We’re booked,” she said. “But there’s always room for growth as people learn about what we have to offer.”

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