With the lingering scent of alfalfa in the air, dust covered stall doors and the steady chorus of whinnies and neighs, not many people would think of the North Dakota State University Equine Facility as a location where therapies take place. But thanks to a unique program, those who enter those dirt filled arenas receive just that.

This North Dakota State University program offers multiple types of therapy, all having one major thing in common: horses. This special and unique program known as Bison Strides, is allowing individuals to receive therapy in a fun-filled and a not so typical therapy environment.

An impactful program

The Bison Strides program came to fruition in the summer of 2017 under the careful observation of Erika Berg, an associate professor in the department of animal sciences at NDSU and the program director of the Bison Strides Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies Program (EAAT). The program's name stems from NDSU's beloved mascot, the bison.

“Bison Strides is an equine assisted activities and therapies program and we serve individuals with physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral challenges,” Berg said.

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There are three programs within Bison Strides: adaptive horsemanship; physical and occupational therapies with Beyond Boundaries, a local therapy service; and a program for active duty military as well as veterans. Bison Strides will be adding a fourth program this summer, an equine assisted learning program that focuses on youth with emotional and behavioral challenges.

Many volunteers that give their time to Bison Strides find it to be a very rewarding experience. (Emily Beal / Agweek).
Many volunteers that give their time to Bison Strides find it to be a very rewarding experience. (Emily Beal / Agweek).
For those who participate in the Bison Strides program, it provides an ideal situation for some, receiving therapy while also having fun.

“We kind of look at it at all angles for Greta. It is a great place for her just to be exposed to horses and just get that experience in on a horse. We’re also looking at it as a therapy. The great thing about it is it's a therapy that doesn’t feel like a therapy for her. When you can find that as a parent, where they actually enjoy and have such a great time doing therapy, it's huge,” Elizabeth Tangquist said.

Tangquist’s daughter, Greta, 15, is an active participant in the program and thoroughly enjoys her session on horseback. While riding, she not only works on physical therapy, but also directives.

“It’s a lot of directions. They are listening, asking their horses to move in a certain way, move their body a certain way with their horse. All of that strengthens her core, her thinking and her processing. It is really using the body in a total experience for therapy,” Tangquist said.

Beyond Boundaries therapists are major advocates for the Bison Strides program as well, saying it offers their clients a unique and worthwhile therapeutic experience.

Bison Strides, North Dakota State University's equine therapy program, offers a unique therapy experience for those who participate.  Photo taken March, 4, 2021, Fargo, N.D. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Bison Strides, North Dakota State University's equine therapy program, offers a unique therapy experience for those who participate. Photo taken March, 4, 2021, Fargo, N.D. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
“Hippotherapy is such a unique treatment therapy. There aren't a lot of businesses or individuals doing it. We are very honored and privileged to be associated with Bison Strides,” said Katie Havelka, an occupational therapy assistant with Beyond Boundaries.

Hippotherapy is a treatment based approach using horses. However, in order to play a role as a leader or teacher in hippotherapy, Havelka says there are some requirements that must be met.

“You have to be an occupational therapist, a physical therapist or a speech language pathologist to provide hippotherapy services. Basically, hippotherapy is using the movement of the horse to achieve the therapy goals,” Havelka said.

Horses also play a crucial part in this form of therapy, and they take their jobs seriously.

“They know when they step in the arena it is time for them to do their job and they are taking care of those kids every step of the way. Every single step, you can feel it,” said Valerie Stevenson, an occupational therapist with Beyond Boundaries. “The experience that the horse gives is unlike anything I can provide in the clinic.”

All hands on deck

The Bison Strides program encompasses an array of individuals. Volunteers, staff, NDSU students, clients, therapists, parents and more all play important and crucial roles in the program’s success.

NDSU offers equine assisted activities and therapies as a minor, making Bison Strides an ideal learning environment outside of the classroom.

“As part of that minor, students needed a place to teach to practice their teaching hours for their instructor certification. So, Bison Strides provides that experiential teaching opportunity,” Berg said.

Equine assisted activities and therapies is offered as minor to NDSU students. The students complete their reaching hours through the Bison Stride program. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Equine assisted activities and therapies is offered as minor to NDSU students. The students complete their reaching hours through the Bison Stride program. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
In addition, participants in the program are not the only people that get something out of becoming a part of the Bison Strides program.

“What's amazing about it is not only do the participants get this incredible opportunity to strengthen their skills, and their body, and their spirit, but we also have volunteers that come from the community and often get back so much more than they feel like they are giving. So, we have this great opportunity for community engagement, for student engagement and for people to understand that there are bigger things out there than them,” Berg said.

A spectacular steed

The Bison Strides program at NDSU is accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH). The program is accredited as a higher education member and is considered to be a premiere member. That's no small feat, as only about 30% of the total centers in the country achieve that status. They are also the only premiere accredited center in the state of North Dakota.

However, the Bison Strides program has recently received another accolade from PATH International.

“Bronco is one of our program horses. He was nominated and won the region horse of the year,” Berg said.

Bronco has become a beloved part of Bison Strides. Therapists, participants and parents alike all sing him praises.

“Bronco is just a really special horse, he’s incredibly intuitive. He taught me a lot in my first years of doing hippotherapy. He has beautiful symmetrical movement which is what we like to see on a therapy horse," Stevenson said. "But more than that, he really cares about his riders. We have clients that were maybe having a bad day and had to get off of the horse and he would just hang his head till he knew that they were OK. He’s special.”

Participants not only receive physical and occupational therapy during their sessions, but learn to follow direction as well. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Participants not only receive physical and occupational therapy during their sessions, but learn to follow direction as well. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Bronco has helped instill confidence in many, especially those who ride him.

“She feels like she is a superstar when she is on Bronco,” Tangquist said about her daughter. “I think the biggest thing is seeing them smile when they get done and just the happiness they have when they are done with their session. It’s just great.”