A Horse’s Magic

From one lucky horse came a vision and a mission to help people regain their mental wellness.

Lucky’s Farm, in Durand, is named after a very special horse. His story of healing and finding belonging is emblematic of the experience many humans have also found on this farm.

“Lucky was our first rescue and an answer to a prayer,” says owner and operator Dr. Judy Cunningham, Ed.D counseling. “We took a group of 4-H kids to visit Shireland, in Hampshire, Ill., in 1990. Part of the attraction was a visit to a pasture where mares and their babies were grazing. Lucky was a 6-week-old weanling who walked right up to us, which was very unusual.”

What was even more unusual was a genetic trait that made Lucky, a shire horse ,undesirable to his breeders. He had one blue eye and one black eye. When Cunningham learned the colt was likely to be euthanized, she was determined to save him. Additionally, her son wanted his own horse to ride alongside his mother. The two prayed they could find a way to purchase Lucky.

“Within a week, a mistake on my paychecks discovered by auditors gave us the money to buy Lucky,” Cunningham says. “Lucky was trained by my son, and he participated in many parades and theater presentations. He was beloved by everyone and was always the ‘gentle giant’ by which his breed is characterized. People felt his gentleness.”

Lucky became Cunningham’s first therapy horse because of his ability to connect with people. In 2007, Cunningham purchased the property which is now Lucky’s Farm and began horse therapy founded on her long-term experience in counseling.

Though Lucky died three years ago, the farm that bears his name at 10748 Patterson Road in rural Durand, specializes in equine-assisted psychotherapy, in which free-rein horses and people with varying types of mental distress interact in a professionally controlled environment. Today, 12 rescue horses of varying breeds call Lucky’s Farm home and are working to help those whose mental health is in need of tender, nurturing healing.

“I went to college to become a math teacher,” Cunningham says. “I chose to student teach in the inner city because I grew up on a farm with no urban experience. During my student teaching, my professor from Northern Illinois University came to watch me working with a group of boys in gangs.”

When her professor asked where she had learned to talk to the boys like that, she told him, “I don’t know.” Asked if she was interested in becoming a counselor, she remembers replying, “What’s a counselor?” The professor offered her a scholarship to earn a master’s in counseling.

“I have been counseling at-risk students for 45 years,” Cunningham says. “Four years ago, I worked in the private sector with students who were in a residential program for the seriously mentally ill. I learned that I could really make a difference, and that my passion for horses not only was effective but also was more successful for therapeutic purposes.”

Cunningham realized she could bring at-risk individuals to her farm to “visit” the horses and change peoples’ attitudes toward life. Initial success intrigued her, and she wanted to learn more. In the process, she discovered the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an internationally recognized therapy system.
“I began the certification process, which is extensive,” she says. “For example, 6,000 hours of working with horses in other areas is a basic requirement.”

Now that she has the EAGALA certification, Cunningham can offer mental health counseling at Lucky’s Farm on its own or as an add-on to an established therapy regimen.

“The difference in therapy at Lucky’s Farm is the site,” she says. “Therapy is conducted in either an indoor or outdoor arena or round pen involving a mental health therapist/counselor, an equine specialist, Pam Kiser, who watches for the horses’ safety, and two or more unhaltered, free-rein horses. The horses read the client’s body language and respond, which triggers an emotional response in the client. The client’s emotional response becomes a metaphor for healing from the inside out.”

The client’s current counselor is welcome to join the therapy session, says Cunningham. Referrals to Lucky’s Farm can come from anywhere, but most of Cunningham’s clients live in Winnebago, Stephenson, DeKalb and nearby counties.

Like Cunningham, equine specialist Pam Kiser grew up on a farm and worked as a milker on a major production farm. Kiser also grew up with horses and has ridden all her life.

“Pam is working on her 6,000 hours with Lucky’s Farm as a partner in the EAGALA therapy,” Cunningham says. “She studies EAGALA through books and the internet, working toward certification. Her work on the farm has done much to prepare our therapy horses for interaction with our clients.”

Cunningham describes EAGALA as an intensive training regimen – once a candidate has been accepted.

“The qualification for the equine specialist is 6,000 hours of working with horses before being allowed to attend the weeklong beginning training,” Cunningham adds. “The week of training is followed by an exam which you need to pass. After passing the exam, you can practice with a mental health specialist only. The mental health specialist must fulfill the outlined certification to practice for their mental health area.”

Training is ongoing throughout the year, both by webinar twice a month and networking meetings. Cunningham and Kiser also connect online every other week with EAGALA therapists from all over the world. Together, the pair are reaching an increasing number of people who benefit from the calming, gentle method of realigning their expectations and attitudes.

“Mental health issues occur because the human is struggling with thoughts and may not even have the words to deal with those thoughts,” Cunningham says. “EAGALA uses ‘clear language’ and metaphor as part of the treatment. It is through these two concepts that the client finds words for the mental health issue he or she is experiencing. The horses’ movement in the arena creates thoughts and feelings on the part of the client that help enlighten and verbalize their struggles. The calming farm environment also helps to create changes in their thought patterns.”

To understand more completely how EAGALA therapy works, Cunningham offers this example of a therapy session: a client experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shares the arena with three horses (one black, one spotted, one brown), along with the mental health specialist and the equine specialist. The client is asked to use this space to share his or her present feelings.

Horse time: When the client is in the arena, the brown horse walks up to the client and looks at his face. The client returns the look, and the horse moves closer. Soon the client is petting the horse. Next, the black horse approaches and looks at the client, who is petting the brown horse. The client soon has a hand on each horse, petting and cuddling them. The two horses respond positively to the client’s attention. The client’s body language signals to the mental health specialist and equine specialist that he or she is more relaxed. Then, the spotted horse approaches the group. The brown horse turns its head and puts its ears back, which is horse language for “stay away.” The spotted horse walks to the corner.

Circle up is the conclusion of a session. Here, the client is asked what was happening. The client says he felt safe for the first time, because the two horses were around him. When the third horse tried to join the group, he felt protected because the brown horse made the spotted horse go away. The mental health therapist asks questions related to feeling safe and protected, applying them to his life activities.

“Sessions are generally an hour long and consist of three parts: using the space to show feelings, in which items can be placed in the arena to augment the interaction between client, horses and staff; time in the arena; and circle up,” Cunningham says. “The client determines how many sessions they attend.”

Lucky’s Farm offers a sliding fee schedule so finances or lack of insurance should not determine whether a client chooses to try Lucky’s Farm, Cunningham says.

She adds that the EAGALA method has been successful because of the way it brings together horses, clear language and mental health adjustments in the client.

“Often, a therapist in a formal office setting ‘tells’ the client what to do with the feelings, which may or may not actually connect with the client,” Cunningham says. “In EAGALA, the client connects with the horses for the therapy and experiences changes in feelings as a direct result of this secure connection, which is then reinforced by the mental health specialist and the equine specialist. This is a solution-oriented therapy. Usually, there is a ‘homework’ activity following a session to move the client’s development in a positive direction.”

The EAGALA approach is commonly used to help veterans experiencing PTSD, but it has also impacted depression, autism spectrum, addictions, guilt and loss, ADHD and teenage issues, bipolar and schizophrenia. Cunningham is currently working on the veteran’s certification for EAGALA.

“EAGALA’s philosophy is about holding space, believing in the innate abilities of our clients and horses, avoiding judgment and interpretation, embracing confidentiality, emotional safety and mastering skill sets that apply to many different areas of life,” Cunningham adds. The five principals of the EAGALA model are high ethical standards for mental health treatment; data-supported outcomes for strengthening and transforming lives; revolutionary, non-traditional approaches to mental health treatment; safety, both emotionally and physically, to achieve deeper healing; and. empowering the client to be the expert in his own life and be engaged in the healing process.

Lucky’s Farm hosts its first Open Barn on Sunday, Oct. 17, from 1 to 4 p.m., at the farm. Open Barn is open to the public, no admission charged. The event features several short demonstrations of how EAGALA helps people to restore mental wellness and connect with a more positive attitude.

Visitors can also meet the farm’s amazing horses, enjoy family-friendly activities like pumpkin carving, and learn more about the therapy that is making life livable for a growing number of clients in our region.