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Local therapeutic horse program celebrates 30th anniversary

Mounted Eagles will mark its 30th anniversary with an Oct. 14 celebratory dinner in Baxter. The Brainerd nonprofit provides therapeutic horsemanship and equine-assisted activities. Its founder is still the lead instructor and riders range from 3 to 65 years old, with lessons year-round.

Keaton Marrow stands beside a horse
Keaton Marrow stands beside a horse provided by Mounted Eagles at Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd. The 12-year-old Little Falls boy is autistic and nonverbal, but the horse-based therapy helps improve his condition.
Contributed / Sarah Marrow
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BRAINERD — Mounted Eagles has spent decades using horses to help people in need of therapy.

Recently, that need has grown.

Interest in the Brainerd nonprofit that provides therapeutic horsemanship has soared to new heights following the pandemic, according to Executive Director Lynn Fairbanks

“We increased by almost 25% from where we were pre-COVID to post-COVID,” Fairbanks said. “People were looking for things to do for people who have these disabilities, and there just weren't a lot of things like Special Olympics, community ed. … They hadn't reopened.”

Mounted Eagles provides therapeutic horsemanship and equine-assisted activities to those facing physical, mental, social and/or emotional challenges to riders who range from 3 to 65 years old.

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Susie Baillif leads a rider on a horse
Mounted Eagles founder Susie Baillif leads Zac Lively on a horse named Jasmine in 2000 as part of Lively's therapy. Lively has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental and learning disabilities. He has been a horseback rider with the nonprofit since it began in 1992.
Contributed / Mounted Eagles

“Susie Baillif, our founder, is still our lead instructor,” Fairbanks said. “The seed was planted in the ‘80s when she read an article in Reader's Digest about a cowboy who put two kids with autism on horses and over time they began to speak.”

The nonprofit marks its 30th anniversary since it began with a public celebration 5:30-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. The cost is $50 at the door to attend the dinner and dancing with a silent auction and a raffle.

Mounted Eagles

Since starting in 1992 with one horse and one rider, one instructor and three volunteers, Mounted Eagles now has the capability to provide services for up to 150 riders per week, according to its website, with its five horses, certified instructors and more than 35 volunteers.

“She had many uncertainties about starting a program,” Fairbank said of Baillif. “But one afternoon, she was looking out her window and an eagle flew from one corner of her property across the swamp and … she knew at this point she would fulfill this dream.”

Sarah Marrow works as a production manager at Lakeshirts in Little Falls. Her two youngest children are among the 46 riders receiving therapy at Mounted Eagles.

“I had never touched a horse or been next to a horse in my life. And to be honest, the first time I walked in there, I was scared of that because they're big,” Marrow said. “But seeing my kids latch right onto them and go right up to them and pet them, I was amazed.”

The Little Falls resident learned about a Mounted Eagles open house from an acquaintance whose daughter, who has Down syndrome, went to Mounted Eagles for many years.

“It was free to go to the open house and I said there was nothing we could lose by going, so we showed up just to check it out,” said Marrow, a 39-year-old wife and mother of four.

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Horsing around

Marrow’s two youngest children are nonverbal autistic boys who go to Mounted Eagles, which is based out of Spirit Horse Center, a Brainerd facility that offers boarding and lessons.

“Our doctor lined us up with occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. Plus they get those same therapies at school every day,” Marrow said. “But we were wondering, what else can we do for them?”

Marrow said it took about a year before her 12-year-old Keaton would get on a horse provided by Mounted Eagles because he was so hesitant. But he always loved the animal and brushed it.

“And now you can't get him off of it,” Marrow said. “Now he actually rides the horse with no lead. He can direct it and he has gained some verbal — he can say ‘go’ and ‘stop.’ … He really strived to try and say that vocally, so that he could communicate with his horse.”

Marrow’s 11-year-old son Landen was the polar opposite of his brother with his first encounter with a horse.
“With Landen, he jumped on right away,” Marrow said. “He jumped on bareback, rode the horse backwards, actually. He was hugging the horse’s behind and laying his face on it, just in love with a horse. And all he wanted to do was be on the horse and get that sensory input.”

According to a horse wanted ad at the nonprofit’s website, a horse is required to be “physically sound with a stout build, possess an easygoing temperament and trustworthy enough to be ridden by a diverse population of physically and mentally challenged riders.”

Marrow described Keaton as quick to get upset, so the volunteers at Mounted Eagles worked with him on calming techniques, and she characterized Landen as generally not ambitious.

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Marrow said of Landen, “He wanted the horse so bad that he had to find a way to communicate, to be able to ride it, so that was his goal for himself. It was, ‘I’ve got to do these things so that I can get the pleasure of riding a horse.’”

Therapeutic

Mounted Eagles riders include those with cerebral palsy, autism, traumatic brain injury, mental retardation, learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome and disorders resulting from exposure to drug and/or physical abuse.

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Jennifer Aulie is physically disabled. The 42-year-old woman has been riding with Mounted Eagles for more than a quarter of a century, according to her mother, Marcia Good.

“We were looking for something to help Jennifer,” Good said. “Physical and occupational therapy helped keep her kind of stable, but it wasn't making her improve.”

Good is a 68-year-old Brainerd resident who works part time at her church. She has faith Mounted Eagles has been helping her daughter since the age of 16.

“The movement of the horse and the exercises that she does has given Jennifer a lot of core strength and helps her balance,” Good said. “After she's on the horse, she walks better for a bit. She has to use a walker all the time but she does walk better.”
Membership and accreditation with PATH International, an equine-assisted services organization, “supports the professionalism, credibility and continuing education the public has come to expect from our program,” according to the nonprofit’s website at mountedeagles.org .

But Good said her daughter’s greater control of her arms and legs since becoming a Mounted Eagles rider — and her daughter’s smile when she is riding — is all the proof she needs.

“One of the biggest things that I've seen with Jennifer and all the people that I have come into contact with there is the self-esteem that these kids, or people, get from riding and being successful,” Good said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

Related Topics: BRAINERDTHINGS TO DOHORSESANNIVERSARIES
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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