Horsing around with a purpose

Riley Fiala guides Buddy, a Clydesdale-Paint horse mix, in The Gathering Place Stable arena before a therapy ride Tuesday. (Gazette photo by Erik Sandin)
Riley Fiala guides Buddy, a Clydesdale-Paint horse mix, in The Gathering Place Stable arena before a therapy ride Tuesday. (Gazette photo by Erik Sandin)

Stillwater stable’s horses help soothe bodies, minds  

BAYTOWN TOWNSHIP — Sometimes when it comes to therapy for bodies and minds, sometimes four legs are the best medicine.

Melanie Nix and Mary Lou Fiala have taken their experience with horses and opened The Gathering Place Stables in rural Stillwater. Besides riding lessons and horse boarding, the women offer therapeutic riding to persons with traumatic brain injuries and special needs.

The idea for the stable started when Nix and her husband moved to the St. Croix Valley from North Carolina about a year ago. The couple bought a 34-acre site with a stable and riding arena that needed repair.

“We started to rebuild it. It’s a work in progress for the next two years. We’re rebuilding everything on this farm,” Nix said.

Nix and Fiala got together when Fiala’s Special Olympics equestrian group, the Stillwater Stampede, was looking for a new place to ride horses.

Offering therapeutic horse rides at The Gathering Place is personal for both women. Nix’s young daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was kicked in the head by a horse. Fiala’s 18-year-old son, Riley, has autism and rides horses for therapy.

“I got involved in it because my son is autistic. As his skills developed, we needed to develop more skills for him,” Fiala said.

Nix got involved in therapy riding during a stay in England nearly 20 years ago when she was asked by a friend to sidewalk with a horse and rider.

“I came into it without knowing much about it,” Nix said. “Watching them get on a horse, they (special needs people) become different people. When a special needs person gets on a horse, they just bond (with the horse).”

Fiala agrees with Nix, based on her son’s experience riding horses.

“He’s able to develop relationships. It has helped him physically,” Fiala said.

Scott Levally agrees. The Chisago Lakes resident brings his 16-year-old daughter, Grace, to The Gathering Place Fridays for a one-hour therapy ride.

“She was super excited. She took to it pretty well,” he said about his special needs daughter.

Levally said his family was familiar with horses and riding. They live in rural Scandia next to a neighbor with horses.

“We have neighbors with 26 acres and she (Grace) was bugging us for years to ride,” he said.

Levally said therapeutic riding has improved Grace’s speech and physical fitness and taught her to be more respectful.

“She looks forward to it,” he said. “It’s a tool we use.”

Jerry and Terry Carroll’s 23-year-old special needs daughter, Laura, has been therapy riding since fall.

“She loves it,” said Jerry Carroll. “She feels really good because she can do it by herself.”

Nix and Fiala said riding horses also helps physically disabled riders improve their fitness.

“It’s physical therapy,” Nix said, adding that riding horses works a person’s core, back and leg muscles.

Fiala said riding horses helps cerebral palsy sufferers elongate and stretch their muscles and gives other special needs riders self-confidence.

Nix and Fiala said the horses used for therapy rides are special, too. Nix prefers using 10- to 20-year-old quarter horses or quarter horse mixes because the breed has the right size and even temperament to handle therapy riders.

“The horses just seem to be extremely tolerant. Words just do not describe the bond the horse has with riders like that,” Nix said.

“With horses, I will say this, it’s the knowledge the horse has,” Fiala added. “They know this person is special and they have to take care of them. It’s serene and peaceful.”

The stable charges $35 for a one-hour therapy ride, but Fiala said she and Nix are flexible on fees. The stable is a registered non-profit and can accept donations. Nix added that she is also seeking sponsorships.

Help has come from at least one person, Nix said. A woman boarding her horse, Mayze, at the stable gave Nix permission to use Mayze as a therapy horse.

Nix also noted a difference in how North Carolina and Minnesota handle providing services to special needs individuals. She said North Carolina has provider agencies directing families of special needs persons to services. She added that seven North Carolina provider agencies knew her by name.

“Here, I can’t find that. Getting my name out has been a little difficult here,” she said. “I think that the state of Minnesota makes it more difficult for special needs (individuals). I noticed that special needs persons (in Minnesota) don’t get as many benefits as they do in North Carolina.”

Nix and Fiala hope to boost community awareness of The Gathering Place Stable when they host a spring open house.

For now, winter weather keeps riders inside the stable’s riding arena, but Nix and Fiala said during spring, summer and fall, clients ride on 35 acres of trails at the stable. Both women said the trail rides keep both riders and horses interested.

“It keeps everybody focused,” Fiala said. “Spring, summer and fall, it’s gorgeous. It’s also nature. When you’re out on the trails, you see nature. You see turkeys out there. You see deer out there.”

For information about The Gathering Place Stable and its services, call 651-323-3502 or email  [email protected]