HUTCHINSON, Minn. — In the countryside south of Hutchinson, Minn., nestled among the farms and fields, you’ll find Equul Access, a non-profit organization providing equine-assisted therapeutic activities for people with special needs. This organization is changing peoples’ lives one ride at a time. For owner Marsha Anderson, Equul Access is the result of a life-long love of horses and a desire to help people with special needs.
Anderson grew up in northern Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota where she received her undergraduate degree in biology. It was during her time at the University of Minnesota that she found an article about the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (now the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) and that peaked her interest. Anderson went on to graduate school at Texas A&M. During her time there she became involved in the equine-assisted therapeutic riding. She facilitated their equine-assisted riding program as well as taught a course on therapeutic riding. After receiving her Master’s degree in Animal Science, Anderson and her husband, Scott, moved back to Minnesota to start a therapeutic riding program.
The Andersons found the perfect spot — 12 acres of land south of Hutchinson. In 2002, Equul Access was born. According to the organization’s website, Anderson came up with the name Equul Access as it’s a combination of Equus (Latin for horse) and equal.
Anderson enjoys working with the horses and believes they are a great fit for those with special needs. “Horses are ever-present,” she said. “Their feedback is immediate.” Horses are adaptable and flexible. “They’re perfect for those on the autism spectrum.” While it could be intimidating at first to be on a horse, Anderson points out that just being around them lowers stress levels.
Not just any horse can be a therapeutic horse, but Anderson believes it isn’t the breed which makes the horse a good fit, it’s many other factors. “They need to be sound, they need to be sane,” Anderson said. Because the participants are of varying heights and weight it’s important to have horses with different body types. “You need bigger, taller horses and smaller horses.” The most important qualification is that the horse has to like people.
There are currently six horses at Equul Access, five of those are being utilized for riding. All the current horses (except for one) were donated. The other horse, a Gypsy Vanner mare named Mystic Dancer was won in a contest. Lexlin Ranch in Tennessee annually gives away horses to various equine programs. In 2016, Lexlin Ranch had people vote for their favorite equine program on their Facebook page and Equul Access was one of the 10 programs that received the most votes and won a free horse.
The horses at Equul Access average a stay of 10 to 14 years. “We try to manage their care so we can get the most time,” Anderson said. When the horses become unable to be in the program due to age, temperament, etc., Anderson tries to find them a home. Anderson is proud of the excellent care she provides for her program horses. “We try to do as much natural care.” That natural care includes chiropractic and massage therapy.
Equul Access is run by Anderson, but it’s the volunteers who are vital to the program. “Our volunteers are our life blood,” Anderson admitted. There are currently 20 to 25 core volunteers, but Anderson is always looking for more as it takes many volunteers to help with the various tasks in the organization.
Who is best suited for equine-assisted therapy? Anyone with a cognitive impairment, spina bifida, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or an autism spectrum disorder. The program has had participants from ages 4 to 96. New participants must go through an evaluation so the instructor can better understand their needs and set goals. A doctor has to sign off on the medical form for the individual to take part in the program.
The cost for the rider to participate can be paid for by their Health Savings Account, by using their own money, or by obtaining grants. “Some of our participants have waiver dollars through the county.” Anderson tries to keep the cost down for the participants and is able to do so because of donations to the program. “What we charge covers 25 percent (of the total cost).”
The lessons are one hour, once a week. The number of weeks in a session can vary. “There’s flexibility in session length.”
Through the years there’s been many success stories at Equul Access. Anderson was happy to share two of them. She had a participant with developmental delays who had a goal of riding a bike. After riding the horses with Anderson for several sessions, he could then successfully ride a bike. The time spent on the horses helped him with balance and control.
Another participant with spina bifida was struggling with suicidal thoughts. “The horses were a good thing for her to help get rid of that stuff.” Anderson sees the confidence grow in the riders from their time on the horse. “That’s incredibly empowering.” Anderson believes, “anyone can benefit with working with horses.”
According to Anderson, the biggest challenges for Equul Access is the typical non-profit battle: funding and volunteers. Trying to find enough of both is always a priority. Another challenge this year was the weather. While the horses are hardy, this winter wasn’t kind to the program as many lessons had to be cancelled due to all the snow and cold temperatures. Anderson is currently working on insulating and heating the barn so it can be used for indoor riding all year.
The future for Equul Access is bright as Anderson strives to keep diversifying the program. She has worked on anti-bullying initiatives which utilize the horses as well as working with caregivers for older adults. Equul Access serves a few hundred people a year. “I’m almost kind of a one woman show with the exception of the volunteers.” She points out though that her husband is her biggest supporter and cheerleader.
Equul Access is more than a non-profit organization for Anderson. “It’s like a piece of me,” she said. That drive and passion for helping others is evident when speaking with Anderson. She sees first-hand the positive impact that equine-assisted therapeutic riding has had on the participants for the past 17 years and counting.
Anyone interested in volunteering, donating to Equul Access or would like more information on participating in their programs, e-mail email@example.com , call (320) 234.7895 or visit www.equulaccess.org.