The Bison Strides program was started by Dr. Erica Berg, associate professor of Equine Science at North Dakota State, in May of 2017 and offers equine-assisted activities and therapies for individuals with various physical, emotional or behavioral challenges. The four programs offered are adapted therapeutic horsemanship, equine assisted learning, physical and occupational therapy and military and veterans horsemanship programs.
The program began when another similar program that NDSU Equine Science previously partnered with closed. “I started Bison Strides,” said Berg. “We had partnered with a program in Minnesota called ‘Riding on Angel’s Wings’ but they closed in February of 2017. We needed another place for students in the minor program to get their teaching hours and a place to offer the services.”
Dr. Berg has been around horses her whole life. “My parents bought my sister and I a horse when we were in high school, but I have been riding since I was seven. My sister and I rode and showed horses and I was on the equestrian team in college,” said Berg. “When I was in graduate school, there was a program similar to Bison Strides that was looking for Volunteers.”
It was one of those life “moments” for Dr. Berg.
“I go ‘Oh, I should do that. That seems pretty cool’,”remembered Berg. “So, I went, and I completely fell in love…with just everything about the experience.” Then, she had another amazing experience while pursuing her doctoral degree at Texas A&M.
“I started my PhD at A&M and part of my assistantship was to coordinate their adapted physical education classes with the Bryan, Texas school district,” said Berg. “So, in 1997, the students in the adapted physical education program of the Bryan, Texas school district were getting bussed to the Texas A&M Equine Center for their gym class and that’s amazing.”
Berg is still thrilled with the experience today. “When I think back to that and however many years ago that was, that was just a completely novel, really cool thing,” expressed Berg. “A school district was paying for the kids’ gym class. Their gym teacher was there and that was their P.E. class. That was such a special experience for those kids and for me.”
After moving to Missouri to get her teaching certificate, Dr. Berg took her current position at NDSU and started with the ‘Riding on Angel’s Wings’ program.
Of the four programs that Bison Strides offers, most are focused on children. The adapted therapeutic horsemanship is designed to teach horsemanship skills. Some of the benefits seen from this program are improved social skills, balance and posture, as well as greater self-confidence and self-awareness.
The equine assisted learning program provides equine interaction opportunities that teach honesty, respect, empathy and communication. This program is for children aged 8 to 17 and focuses on social and emotional growth for those children who are challenged in those areas.
The physical and occupational therapy program uses “evidence-based practices and clinical reasoning to purposely manipulate the movement of the horse to engage the client’s sensory, neuromotor and cognitive skills to achieve functional outcomes.” Bison Strides works closely with Beyond Boundaries Therapy Services to assist with this program.
“Something that is unique about a horse’s walk is that when a human is sitting on their back,” explained Berg, “the horse moves a human’s pelvis as though the human were walking on their own two feet. It [the horse’s movements] has an anterior/posterior rotational quality to its walk that mimics a human’s walk.”
An example is a child with a brain injury or afflicted with cerebral palsy can get the muscle patterns of a gait, (or walk) built into their muscle or brain memory which helps significantly in their recovery or simply improves their motor skills.
On one of the days I visited the equine center, I was able to witness a little boy who looked about 4 or 5 years old. He and his mother had just resumed their equine therapy sessions recently as the pandemic appeared to be diminishing in its scope. His mother told me he had one of his hips replaced as the hip he was born with was diseased.
So, this little guy is dealing with a new artificial hip while still having the underdeveloped motor skills of a five year-old. Watching the excitement in this young man riding this horse and the look of joy on his mother’s face was an emotional experience for me. While a physical therapist walked along on one side and an occupational therapist walked along the other, this little guy rode the horse facing forward, rearward and facing both to the left and right. Meanwhile, his occupational therapist had him do other simple exercises like holding his arms above his head while the horse was moving. It was an amazing experience.
The last program offered is the military and veterans program. It consists of what is referred to as “ground training”. This training gives the veteran an opportunity to build a relationship with the horse that focuses on mutual respect, clear expectations and trust. The veteran also has an opportunity for self-reflection, emotional awareness and stress tolerance.
“We’ve probably had about 20 veterans use that program so far,” said Berg. “The pandemic kind of slowed that down a little and we only have one veteran right now. Four to six veterans is about our session limit because we can’t have that many people in the arena with the horses. We had four last semester, but one moved away and the others have had some other health issues,” continued Berg. “We are always looking for more. So, we are working on getting the word out from fellow veterans because we think that holds a lot more weight.”
The military and veterans program is also beneficial to the horses.
“It is good for the horses to get that contact, too,” said Berg.
That one veteran is retired U.S. Navy Captain Doug Kliman. I met Captain Kliman one morning at the equine center and spoke with him while he groomed a miniature horse named Tony. When asked what he liked about the military and veterans program, Kliman said, “The time with the horses spent getting to know them and bonding with them.” Captain Kliman is taking equine classes at NDSU as an undesignated student and likes the fact that the classes and therapy “complement each other.”
Tony, one of two minis at the center, is new to the grounding sessions and is being groomed, literally and figuratively, for other work as well. Tony, along with the other miniature horse, Spark, are both being trained to become ambassadors for the Bison Strides program.
“Pet Partners is a group in the United States that does evaluating and certifying of teams, a human and an animal,” said Berg. “Most of the time, it’s humans and dogs or humans and horses, but it can be a human and a cat, almost anything really. The certification means the animal and the human team need to meet a certain criteria and once you have that partner certification, it’s like having a canine good citizen certificate for your dog. The dog has to sit, it has to stay, it has to come when called and not bark or climb on somebody,” explained Berg. “In the case of a horse, the horse must show it can be led quietly, it has to accept three strangers petting them and remaining still and they have to accept a neutral dog.”
A neutral dog is one that simply walks by without actually engaging the horse.
“The horses also have to deal with loud noises,” said Berg. “Humans shouting in the area or children being loud, they really must show that they can keep it together when facing that environment. Another important one, especially for our veteran population, is walkers and wheelchairs. How will the horse react when approached by someone using one of those walking aids?”
Once Tony and Spark have their certifications, the plan is to have them go to schools, nursing homes and hospitals to advertise the Bison Strides program. “Fingers crossed,” said Berg.
Why horses? What is it about this animal that makes them a great fit for the various types of therapy that Bison Strides offers?
“In order to work with horses, you need to be calm in your body and present in your mind,” said Berg. “Sometimes we don’t see that, particularly in our veteran population. We see those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and some of our veterans aren’t always in that state and are in their fight-or-flight mode. They’ve got intrusive thoughts coming in. Working with the horses allows a person, in fact, the horse basically demands you be present with them.”
Horses are animals aware of their environment and their survival depends on their ability to sense the environment that surrounds them. Berg explains, “Humans are predator, horses are prey. The horse is keenly aware of their environment. In fact, their survival depends on the ability to read the body language of everything in their environment,” said Berg. “If the horse does a poor job of reading its environment, it becomes prey and does not survive. So, from an evolutionary standpoint, horses have an extremely high sense of self-preservation and are really good at adapting to their environment.”
Captain Kliman put it this way, “They talk to us through their body language.”
“Many of our veterans can relate to that self-preservation piece,” added Berg.
“It’s important to note that because the horses are not human, they do not judge the veteran,” said Berg. “They do not care if the words coming out of your mouth are hurtful or uncomfortable. You are not going to hurt their feelings. You may make them nervous with the tone you are using, but this allows for some self-reflection.”
The horse will then signal the veteran that it is uncomfortable. “In this case, the horse will choose not to stick around and walk away,” said Berg. “Now we have an opportunity for the veteran participant to understand that their body language or tone was uncomfortable, and we can talk about that.”
The horse just walks away. Instead of yelling, judging or using verbal or physical violence, the horse walks away to tell you that it wasn’t feeling safe.
“It’s less confrontational and the participant becomes less defensive about their actions. It’s a self-realization process,” said Berg. “That is much more powerful than another person pointing out to you something you probably already know. The horse has no ulterior motive. They are just being. The horse is in the moment, and it demands the same of you.”
There are some challenges to the program. “There can be,” explained Berg. “A lot of that the population that we get in have bad knees, bad hips, for example. So, sometimes we just do what the participant veteran is comfortable with. If that means staying on the ground and grooming the horse for an hour, so be it.”
Sometimes, the participating veteran will relax and begin sharing with the horse, or with the staff.
“Not to have it analyzed, not to have it judged,” said Berg. “They get some things off of their chest and maybe start talking some more.”
There is also the challenge of matching up a horse physically with a participant.
“Our limit right now with the riding or mounted work is our horses are pretty old and pretty small,” explained Berg. “Right now, we have a weight limit of 165 to 170 pounds. So, we are actively looking for other horses that can support adults and it’s not just veterans or military people, it’s all adults.”
Berg is currently working with someone who is an alumni of the program to bring in a draft cross horse. A draft horse or a draft crossbreed are horses that are typically large and very powerful. They are popular in farming, logging and recreational uses. To go along with their size and strength, they are also known for their patience and docile temperament.
Any veteran or current member of the military is eligible. You do not need permission or a doctor’s diagnosis of a condition to participate.
“There is some paperwork to fill out,” said Berg. “A doctor’s release form and a registration, emergency contact, that kind of thing.”
There is no charge to the veteran for the program.
“The military and veteran program is funded 100% by grants and donor support,” said Berg.
The program is also dependent on some incredible staff. Besides Dr. Berg, there is a staff of volunteers and of course, NDSU students who are in the equine science program. Jesse Moe, one of those students majoring in equine science, is the Program Assistant for Bison Strides. She sees it every day, the relationship between animal and human.
“My favorite thing about Bison Strides,” said Moe, “is seeing how it affects our participants. The horses love it, too.”
“Bison Strides would not run without her [Jesse],” said Berg, “or our volunteers.”
For more information on Bison Strides, visit the following website: https://www.bisonstrides.org/