Horses and healing

Grand Rapids farm and shelter offers equine-assisted

mental health therapy 

As treatment for mental health expands so do the methods patients can utilize. One such unique method is equine-assisted therapy. Here in Grand Rapids, Healing Foundations Therapeutic Farm and Shelter is doing this exact work.

A part of Northland Counseling Center, Healing Foundations Farm and Shelter utilizes animal-assisted therapy (AAT), specifically equine-assisted therapy, at its shelter and for out-patient treatment. Clients can be referred by their providers or be self-referred for mental health symptoms.

Healing Foundations Therapeutic Shelter is a large farmhouse with 16 residential beds for children ages four and up set on 33 acres. While at the shelter, children and their families are assisted in setting up mental health services. The shelter is home to a variety of animals including four regular horses and two miniature donkeys. A local farm, owned by Equine Specialist Vicky Hough, houses one donkey, three miniature horses and two regular horses that are used for out-patient treatments.

According to Healing Foundations, animal-assisted therapy, “has specific goals, is documented and evaluated overtime. AAT can focus on motivation for change, building relationships, social skills, emotional regulation and psychological well-being. AAT must be provided by a mental health professional or a clinical trainee under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional.”

Program Director and Creator of the Healing Foundations Therapeutic Farm and Shelter Angie Barrato, MA, LPCC is an animal-lover and started the organization when she saw a need in the community for more services.

“I had this idea about the farm for a long time,” Barrato said. “I’ve always loved dogs. I’ve always loved other people’s horses. And I’ve always believed in more innovative and tangible ways of therapy.”


Healing Foundation began providing the Eagala model of equine therapy in the fall of 2017. Barrato and other Master-level therapists at Healing Foundations Therapeutic Farm and Shelter are certified in this model.

“The Eagala Model is a team approach that includes a licensed, credentialed Mental Health Professional, a qualified Equine Specialist, and horses working together with the client in an arena at all times,” according to the Eagala website. “When inside the arena, all the work is done on the ground with the horses front and center, deliberately unhindered and never ridden, and allowed to interact with the client as they with. This creates the space for the client, with the support of the professional facilitators, to reflect, project and make deep connections.”

Barrato explained that children at the shelter work on chores to give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. They also do equine-led activities, such as grooming the horses, which allows them to feel good about taking care of something. Additionally, they do many activities that serve as metaphors in their life.

“They’ll do obstacle courses where the obstacles represent obstacles in their own life and then they have to lead the horse through the obstacles to see where they get stuck and how they have to get around it.”

Why horses?

A common question that is asked about equine-assisted therapies is, why horses? There are many qualities that these animals possess that make them well-suited for therapy methods. The Eagala website states that horses are intelligent prey animals. This means they have evolved to be sensitive to their environment.

“They instinctively analyze and react to our body language and other nonverbal cues providing us with valuable feedback and insights for other areas of our lives,” according to the Eagala website.

Barrato mentioned research which has shown horses are able to mimic emotions. One horse in particular at the farm is known to naturally gravitate toward those with major depression.

Other reasons listed from Eagala include the fact that horses are powerful and large animals.

The Eagala website states, “Approaching horses helps us reflect how we approach our relationships and how we can face other big or overwhelming things in our lives.”

Lastly, horses are herd animals with distinct roles and personalities within the herd. This structure of the herd and a variety of attitudes reflect how horses are similar to humans. Barrato explained how many of their horses also have are different colors to help support this metaphor.


Since 2017, Healing Foundations Therapeutic Farm and Shelter has grown. She noted that the majority of their clients are from Itasca County and a few neighboring counties. This is part of an effort to keep children as close to home as possible when choosing a placement option for residential and crisis services.

“We primarily want to serve Itasca County,” Barrato said.

Healing Foundations started a chemical dependency group this past summer and has seen great outcomes from the program already.

“Our program director has said the program has gone really well,” Barrato commented.

In the future, Barrato would like to expand their services to consistently offer summer camps and programs for team building for sports teams, corporate organizations and other businesses. She also hopes to see many forms of therapy emerge as more and more people seek help.

“I think we need as many options as we can get. Every person is different,” Barrato said. “What works for one isn’t going to work for another and so, as many unique people we have, we could have that many unique forms of therapy or a way to reach people.”

For more information on Healing Foundations Therapeutic Farm and Shelter, visit To read more on the Eagala model of equine therapy, visit


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