By Anna Jauhola
West of Newfolden, there’s a pasture that represents life’s struggles and brings people healing.
Sandy Malm, of Hallock, entered this pasture first as a volunteer and then as a client when she suffered serious trauma in 2019 after being bucked off her horse. As a life-long horse lover, Malm knew the nonprofit, Blazin’ Saddles, could help her cope with her fear and anxiety.
“I decided I needed to do this,” she said of entering equine assisted learning, commonly known as horse therapy. “I knew I couldn’t do it myself. I knew how (Wendy Smith) could work with clients and I believed in the process.”
She first started bringing kids to horse therapy with Mavis Benson near Lancaster about 20 years ago. With her training as a nurse, Malm naturally took classes in hippotherapy, which is the use of a horse to benefit a child. When Benson retired, Malm discovered Blazin’ Saddles near Newfolden was doing similar work and began transporting children there for therapy.
Wendy Smith and her daughter, Amanda Tungseth, operate Blazin’ Saddles along with their husbands, Rick and Josh, respectively. Smith is certified in equine assisted learning and works with children, teens and adults, as well as couples and families. Tungseth is also qualified and helps with some therapy, but more so handles private riding lessons.
They incorporated Blazin’ Saddles as a 501(c)3 nonprofit about eight years ago and are working on expanding the faith-based therapy portion. Smith left her 20-year job at Wikstrom Telephone Company in March to focus on the enterprise. Before that, she’d take vacation time to help with day camps held at the farm.
“I have wanted to help people with horses since I was a teen,” Smith said. “Amanda has done most of the work here for too many years. But the ministry part, we really want to grow.”
She and Tungseth had both struggled with “mean girls” in their teenage years and found solace in riding horseback after long days at school. They incorporated those memories into what they do at Blazin’ Saddles and are now working to focus more on the healing horses can offer people and the ministry that supports the healing.
“There’s a lot of just … brokenness,” Smith said. “Kids today struggle.”
She said horses can sense human emotion and “seem to know what we’re feeling.” She’s pointed out to children how a horse acts in reaction to their emotions that day — if a horse senses fear, the horse is fearful.
“So they kind of learn that when they’re calm and peaceful, that’s how the horse is going to be,” Smith said.
Her favorite example relays the story of a girl who had a terrible day at school and came to therapy with great sadness. When they entered the pasture and visited, Smith realized the horses had surrounded them and one placed its head on the girl’s shoulder.
“I said, ‘Look at what’s going on here. They know you’re sad and they want to help,’” Smith said, choking up. “It was just a powerful moment.”
This kind of encouragement, as well as weekly Bible verses and ensuring all clients know God loves them, is part of Smith’s goal to help her clients.
Many of her child and family clients are referred to her by county social service departments, but others come of their choosing. She works with children who are suicidal, self-harming, self-abusive and have suffered abuse or trauma due to a variety of situations.
Much of the therapy with horses takes place on the ground, with some riding. Smith explained all sessions start out with one or several horses in the arena and the clients choose one of those animals to take to the “God box” — a box drawn on the ground that represents a place to leave struggles they’re juggling that day. The trick is, each client must get their horse to the God box without tools – no harness, no lead, no rope.
“It teaches people a lot about themselves,” Smith said. “Am I able to be assertive? How do I communicate? If I don’t communicate with this horse, how do I communicate with other people?”
Many times, those several horses in the pasture will represent one or many people in a client’s life. Smith said clients will sometimes choose a horse that represents the person with whom they struggle most. Others will label all the horses in the pasture as people in their lives, but Smith will notice none of the horses represent the client.
“So I might ask the question, ‘I noticed nobody represented you.’ And it really gets people thinking about life,” Smith said.
She often watches how clients work to manipulate a horse through an obstacle they’ve set up or to the God box. Some may push, bribe or coax their horses, which is telling of how they deal with people in life. Yet others might push their horse right to the desired destination.
“You can see where people are really healthy in their relationships and where they need some work,” Smith said. “And they usually figure it out themselves because my job is to say, ‘I notice this.’ I’m not a psychologist. I ask, ‘What do you think happened out there?’ and they usually figure it out.”
She has seen horse therapy help children gain self-esteem and feel empowered. Therapy has helped children stop self-harming behaviors such as cutting and others grow into confident leaders. One girl began therapy six years ago and faced myriad challenges, including ADHD.
“She’s just amazing. I don’t like labels because that little girl can ride horse like anyone else, but she’s not a label here,” Smith said. “When she first came, she wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. Today she’s helping other kids create an obstacle course we can take a horse through.”
‘I’ve seen less fear’
These same stories are emerging for adults who struggle with anything from anxiety and marital issues to addiction.
Malm, who is also on the board for Blazin’ Saddles, has only been in horse therapy since early May and has seen a marked difference. She has dealt with anxiety issues her whole life, but when her horse bucked her off resulting in a crushed cervical vertebra, Malm was terrified of getting back on.
“I made the mistake of buying him on Facebook,” Malm said of her former horse. “He’s probably my 10th horse. He was posted as a horse anyone can ride, go down the trail and safe.”
After boarding him at Angela Younggren’s stables in October 2018, Malm wasn’t able to work with him until May 2019. She saddled him and led him into the round pen on a spring day, circled him around the corral and he bucked, which isn’t unusual, she said. He calmed down and Malm climbed in the saddle while Younggren checked on her girls in the barn.
Her horse startled and began bucking from a standstill, for which Malm was not prepared.
“It was a severe buck. I stayed on a little bit and my instinct said I gotta get off,” she said. “So I was in the process of doing what they call an emergency dismount. … I couldn’t get my feet under me and I slammed back on my butt and then slammed back on my head.”
She was wearing a helmet, which saved her from a brain bleed, but the damage was done to her vertebra.
Younggren called 911 and Malm credits the local emergency personnel, doctor and nurses for getting her safely to Fargo for surgery.
Since then, she donated that horse to Wojo’s Rodeo out of Greenbush, and he turned into a good bronc. And therapy has led her, through baby steps, to a new horse raised and trained by Amanda Tungseth.
“The last couple of weeks, I’ve transported him to Blazin’ Saddles for therapy. And the last time, I rode him in the arena and the round pen, and on a trail ride with Angela,” Malm said. “I went from just being able to groom a horse and touch a horse, to leading the horse, taking it slowly, to finally riding.”
As she has worked with Malm, Smith said her fear goes deeper than just horses and the faith-based element has been a powerful motivator.
“I’ve just seen less fear,” Smith said of Malm. “There was a lot of fear. … But just having someone else encouraging you and saying, ‘You can,’ is important.”
Although Blazin’ Saddles is faith-based, Smith and Malm encourage anyone seeking therapy to visit the website blazinsaddles.org or call to visit about the process at 218-874-6609.
By Anna Jauhola