Sonnet Santella, 8, who was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, hugs Belle, a Haflinger horse, during a session at Timber Creek Therapies.
Sonnet Santella, 8, who was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, hugs Belle, a Haflinger horse, during a session at Timber Creek Therapies.
December 30, 2013


It is much more difficult to lead a horse through an angry obstacle course than a happy one.

That's a lesson 8-year-old Sonnet Santella, who has Asperger syndrome and often avoids talking to people, learned during her second horse-assisted learning session at Timber Creek Therapies in Guthrie Center several weeks ago.

Using an arena, obstacle courses, metaphors and one large catalyst - horses - the Timber Creek therapists teach social skills and problem-solving through one of the center's newest offerings.


Despite the fact that they stand on four legs, horses' gaits are similar to those of humans, making them an ideal therapy tool. For more than 10 years, Cindy McCarty, owner of Timber Creek Therapies, and her employees have offered physical, occupational, speech and language, aquatic, and cognitive therapy for children with mental and physical disabilities or social maladies, often with horses in the mix.

Most recently, the center has begun regularly offering sessions based on the EAGALA model - it stands for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association - which refers to horse-assisted therapy and learning.

Lynnea Andersen, a licensed master social worker from Panora who works at Saint Jude Hospice, has been certified in the EAGALA model since 2007 and leads the sessions. She has known McCarty for years and thought Timber Creek was the perfect place to combine her social-work experience and her lifelong love of horses. Although she has offered equine-assisted therapy and learning here and there for some time, it was just this past summer she started seeing more clients for those sessions.

Although many of those who go to Timber Creek undergo speech, occupational or other types of therapy from atop a horse, those who work with Andersen work from the ground, alongside the horse, rather than riding it.

"This is a program in which you use groundwork with the horse and incorporate different activities that are metaphors for life," Andersen said. "All of the activities (involve) the horse."

Clients interact closely with the horses - grooming and walking them, and often, building obstacle courses in the center's arena and leading the horses through them.

Andersen works with both children and adults, and not everyone who benefits from equine-assisted learning has a mental-health diagnosis, she said. Some have autism or Asperger syndrome, while others have problems with aggressive behavior or depression. However, equine-assisted learning has also been found effective when working with veterans and groups of people participating in leadership or teamwork activities.

"There's really nothing that could come to us that someone is dealing with that wouldn't benefit from it," Andersen said. "The activities are really looking at what's going on, relative to what is going on with their life. If they can overcome this, there's other things they can overcome."

For clients with a history of abuse, working with the horse can create an important bond.

"A lot of adult clients will say, 'Just being around the horse just makes me feel this unconditional love,' " she said. "If someone's been sexually abused, physically abused, verbally abused, the horse doesn't try to fix them and say, 'You'll be OK.' They're just there, just this unconditional love a horse can give that we can't give."

Sessions vary widely and are closely tailored to what a particular client needs, Andersen said. Some clients will spend an entire 45-minute session doing nothing but grooming a horse.

Although clients don't always work with the same horse from session to session, they do develop relationships with the animals they see. Andersen tries to consider a client's needs when choosing a horse - for instance, one of the horses at the center that was abused earlier in its life is often paired with adults who have been abused.

"There's something kind of magical that happens with that," she said.


Sonnet Juliet Brianne Santella - so named because of her mother's love of Shakespeare - is one of Andersen's newest clients.

The Bagley third-grader, who was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, has undergone speech therapy at Timber Creek for some time, but she has only had several sessions with Andersen.

Her first was focused on grooming and becoming familiar with the Haflinger horse, Belle, with whom she is working. She was immediately comfortable with leading the horse around the arena, said Beth Johnston, a therapy aide who has worked at Timber Creek for three-and-a-half years after volunteering there while in high school.

Establishing comfort with the horse, who stands at least as tall as the 8-year-old, was important, said Sonnet's mother, Megan Widen, of Bagley.

"Before we came here, Sonnet was scared of animals, especially big ones," Widen said. "I didn't think this would work at all, but she just took to it."

For her second session, Sonnet was first directed to make a "sad or angry" obstacle course. Using bright orange cones and colored balls, blocks, rings and rods, the girl crafted a short, straight, tightly-spaced-together line that was carefully color coordinated.

The tricky part: she had to lead Belle through the course. Girl and horse, both small, were barely able to squeeze through two cones at the course's end.

Make a happy course, Andersen suggested next - as big as you want.

Sonnet's second creation was curved and spaced farther apart, although equally as intricate as the first. After one run-through with Belle, she spaced it out even more, making the trek with the horse much easier.

The third-grader is already exhibiting changes that her mother and grandmother, Pat Santella, trace back to Timber Creek.

"People at church say, 'What happened?' " Widen said. " 'She's talking all of a sudden.' "


Timber Creek is a family affair for 9-year-old Mei - nicknamed Mei Mei.

She and her brother, Tai, both adopted from China, both attend sessions at Timber Creek. Tai rides a horse during speech therapy - his favorite is Buffy, Belle's half-sister - and Mei Mei has been working with Andersen for several months.

Therapy techniques geared toward grief and loss are also able to address some of the adoption-related challenges children face, said Anne Riordan, the children's mother, an educator at Springbrook Conservation Education Center.

Working with the horse helps Mei Mei, who started working with Andersen several months ago, better understand visual and spoken cues. The skills she learns from interacting with the horse come into play with family and friends, her mother said.

"They're teaching her respect and responsibility," Riordan said. "They're teaching her to have empathy."

As she has worked more with Andersen, the obstacle courses Mei Mei builds have become more open and spread out. Instead of asking for help or company, she builds them by herself.

"I see patience I wouldn't normally see," Riordan said. "I see her try things she'd never have tried before. ... I think there's something magical about this place."

As Mei Mei tried to place a halter on Belle during a session earlier in December, Andersen called out several of her actions - reminding her not to ignore the horse and to be careful not to get too close.

She reiterated that those lessons apply to people, too.

"She probably doesn't like me now," Mei Mei said after the horse shied away from a swift movement.

"Do you think she holds grudges?" Andersen asked. "Just because you were in her face, she doesn't like you?"

After several tries, Mei Mei successfully placed a halter on the horse and led her through the obstacle course she had created with colored balls and rings - a path crafted around the entire arena. Along the way, Andersen and Johnston stood in her way, forcing her to come up with solutions on the spot - saying "excuse me" or turning and going in the opposite direction. It's all about problem-solving, Andersen said.

The center is a quick drive from Menlo for Riordan and her kids.

"That's the real beauty of it," she said. "It's cutting-edge therapy. People would drive forever for this, and it's right down the road for us."

Beyond the normal therapy sessions, Timber Creek employees find small ways to teach and work with clients. They offer to let Mei Mei take a horse for a quick loop around the arena after her brother's weekly sessions are finished or ask Tai to help tear up a hot dog for the center's resident dog, Jack, to eat.

Riordan said she hopes her children will grow up to become volunteers at Timber Creek, so that they can assist with other children's therapy.


Timber Creek Therapies seeks to address a wide variety of needs. In addition to Andersen's sessions and the various therapies, the center offers a camp called Hearts and Hooves for children who have lost someone close to them. It also works with New Hope Village to offer a therapeutic riding program.

The center has more than a dozen horses of various types, and visitors can also find an alpaca, a pile of cats and Jack, the dog, spread throughout the center's acres. Financial assistance is available to those who need it through Timber Creek Charities . Those interested in learning more about the centers services can visit or call (641) 747-3225.

"I've just seen such beautiful things happen out there," Andersen said.