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Horses helping humans

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Three people, arm-in-arm, looked at the horse a little unsure of what to do next.

In front of them lay a stiff-bristled brush, saddle blanket and English saddle. The person in the middle was tasked with operating as the brain while the individual on either side represented an arm. The “arms” weren’t allowed to think. The “brain” wasn’t allowed to move. But between them, they were tasked with smoothly brushing and saddling the horse. The brain gave the directions.

“Right arm, pick up the brush.”

“Left arm take the blanket.”

The gray quarter horse, Titan, waited impassively, unperturbed by the odd trio or the nearby group of onlookers. The onlookers had their own battle — being silent while the trio before them fumbled to lift the saddle and shuffled toward the horse. It was obviously difficult for the “arms” to avoid independent thought. And for those unfamiliar with horses, even getting the right side of the blanket was a conundrum. But for Sara Sherman, the woman behind the exercise, the goal wasn’t to complete the task perfectly. For Sherman, it’s the exercise that counts. Luckily, Titan, her equine partner in the work, didn’t seem to mind either.

Sherman, who has a passion for equine-assisted life coaching, founded Discovery Horse in the Brainerd area in June. This month she moved her office full-time into the Spirit Horse Center south of Brainerd.

“I think this works well because the horse represents our vulnerability and our strengths,” Sherman said.

Sherman graduated from Prescott College in Arizona in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology and equine experimental learning.

She works with corporate team building, personal growth retreats and small informal groups. Individuals may want to work through addiction, or self esteem, goal attainment and/or personal empowerment. For Sherman, anyone looking to deepen their connection — be it for themselves or the world around them — may benefit from the horse experience.

“I thought it was just a really interesting take on team work,” said Jill Carlson-Ferrie, who recently attended a session. Carlson-Ferrie is director of learning and development at Mid Minnesota Federal Credit Union in Brainerd. “You add that horse element and it does put a different perspective on it.”

The difference also comes in taking people out of their normal work environment entirely, which Carlson-Ferrie considered a positive move away from the familiar and routine. It’s not a team-building exercise in a conference room. It’s a gathering in an indoor arena attached to stables. Earthen floor beneath their booted feet. Smooth leather saddle in their hand. Big inquiring eyes, silky smooth neck and soft nose of the horse in their midst.

“Adding that element really made people work together quicker and from a different perspective,” Carlson-Ferrie said, noting businesses are looking for new ways to engage their employees.

“You want people to stay,” she said. “You want longevity in your organization.”

With the cost involved in training new people, Carlson-Ferrie said retaining employees is important and through team-building exercises an organization can show their workers they are invested in them.

“I really enjoyed it,” Carlson-Ferrie said. “I thought it was very interesting. I have to admit I was fairly skeptical going into it.”

Carlson-Ferrie was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the small group bonded together as they worked silently on their first task — getting Leonardo, a Friesian/Morgan cross gelding, to walk on a tarp. The group used eye contact and body language, finding their roles without speaking.

Carlson-Ferrie tells her children being able to work from a base of good leadership, adjusting to different personalities and work with a variety of people means they’ll always be successful no matter what they do. Developing that communication in the workplace, is a way to stand apart from the competition, Carlson-Ferrie said. Discovery Horse is offering free opportunities to observe the session or take part in hands-on activities from 2-4:30 p.m. Feb. 22 and 1-3:30 p.m. Feb. 24.

For Sherman, the horse/human mix is for anyone seeking personal growth. She worked with a student who was bullied at school. The student walked in a round pen with the horse. Sherman asked the student to walk the same way she did at school. The girl’s shoulders slumped. She seemed insecure. The horse nudged her and crossed in front of her path. In the end, Sherman said the girl was walking with purpose, intention with her shoulder’s back and exhibiting an inner level of confidence. The horse respected her space.

Sherman said: “When you can show a person they can get a 1,200 pound animal to walk alongside them in partnership, that’s a pretty compelling experience to have.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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