As a therapist at a youth residential facility, Kat Heggen noticed a recurring theme on the weekends.
“Every Sunday, we would have a lot of big emotions,” she explains. The day’s schedule was relatively unstructured and that, combined with family visits (or the lack thereof), seemed to result in many teens acting out.
For a solution to the problem, Heggen turned to a place that always brought her comfort. “The barn was always my special place,” she says.
Taking teens to a barn wasn’t an option so Heggen did the next best thing. She loaded her horses into a trailer and brought them to the facility on weekends. Those early experiences showed her the power of equine-assisted therapy and eventually led to the founding of The Barn for Equine Learning, a non-profit in Lowell.
Today, The Barn – as it is often called – provides therapy services to people from all walks of life, including youth and adults. It is also a place for birthday parties, riding lessons and community service.
From the Ashes of Tragedy
To paraphrase a quote often attributed to former President Theodore Roosevelt: Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. And that seems to ring true when you consider Heggen – who is a licensed masters social worker (LMSW) — and her quest to provide equine-assisted therapy to the community.
In 2015, she officially formed a non-profit and started providing therapy services at her property on Timpson Ave. in Lowell Charter Township. Within two years, she had more than a dozen horses and was busy assisting at-risk youth and others. Then, tragedy struck in 2017.
Her barn was set on fire by a nearby resident who was later sentenced to time in a secured mental health facility. Not only did the arson destroy the building, but it also killed 13 horses who were trapped inside.
It was a tragic time for Heggen, but the community rallied to provide support and a new barn was eventually built. This one included an indoor riding arena that would allow the non-profit to expand its services.
“We’ve picked up the pieces,” Heggen says. “It has changed our course, [but] I’m going to search for the good out of it.”
It wasn’t long before the COVID-19 pandemic threw her another curveball. The Barn’s mission is focused around providing in-person services, and it couldn’t pivot to virtual sessions in the same way traditional therapy practices could. The state contracts Heggen had in place to provide youth services fell through too.
With those setbacks now in the past, Heggen and two other licensed therapists on staff are back to meeting with clients in person and letting The Barn’s horses work their magic when it comes to helping people address and overcome a variety of obstacles.
Equine-Assisted Therapy: The Basics
Clients who come to The Barn for therapy don’t need to know how to ride; they actually won’t even get on a horse during their sessions.
“We use the horse as a tool,” Heggen explains. Brushing or petting a horse is one way to break down barriers, particularly with at-risk youth who may be hesitant to talk. Sometimes it helps to have an animal there to break the ice, and equine-assisted therapy can be less intimidating for some people than sitting in a small room across from a therapist.
“It allows us to connect a little quicker,” according to Heggen.
She says some children who have trouble expressing their own thoughts and feelings may find it helpful to start by describing what they think a particular horse is feeling. And Heggen has witnessed adults have emotional breakthroughs simply by being in the presence of a horse.
“There’s something that’s so special about hugging a horse,” she says. “Maybe [a client] just needed that touch.”
Equine-assisted therapy can help with a range of issues, such as the following:
- Eating disorders
- Behavior disorders
Like traditional therapy, the goal is to help clients identify issues and develop solutions. At The Barn, licensed therapists provide one-on-one sessions as well as group sessions such as a women’s group and a “herd meditation.”
“I’m so proud of the wide range of diversity of our groups,” Heggen says. A particular focus has been providing reduced-fee services to at-risk youth and those recovering from trauma such as human trafficking.
Heggen credits the “power of our horses” in being able to meet the needs of people from diverse backgrounds.
Riding Lessons, Birthday Parties and More
As a non-profit, providing therapy services is the mission of The Barn for Equine Learning, but that isn’t its only activity.
“We also serve as a traditional barn doing traditional riding activities,” Heggen says.
Those activities include riding lessons, birthday parties and summer camps. The summer camps run in June and July for children ages 7-14 and include participants of all abilities. “We really believe in community inclusion,” Heggen says.
The Barn also offers adaptive riding which is often used by those with special needs. These riding lessons can help improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength while improving confidence, self-esteem and social skills.
In total, The Barn has 14 horses, seven mini horses and one pony that it uses in its therapy and non-therapy service. Fees from the non-therapy services are especially important to cover the costs associated with maintaining The Barn and its non-profit mission, Heggen notes.
Events at The Barn for Equine Learning
“It takes a whole community to run a place like this.” Heggen says, adding that most horse care and maintenance relies on volunteers.
Each Saturday, except holidays, The Barn is open from 9:30-11am for Community Barn Time. This is an opportunity for anyone to come out, see the facilities, talk to staff and, yes, pitch in with weekly chores such as cleaning stalls.
There are other volunteer opportunities throughout the week as well. For instance, people are needed to walk alongside horses during adaptive riding lessons.
Finally, The Barn hosts regular family-friendly fundraisers that raise money for the non-profit. The next one will be this Saturday, April 1, 2023, from 11am-2pm. “The Barn” Yard Eggstravaga is an open house-style event that includes an egg hunt, craft, snack, games and photo booth. Adults are free, but children will need a ticket that costs $10 in advance or $12 at the door.