CHIPPEWA FALLS — Holly Schindler gives much of the credit for her strength to her horses.
Schindler, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, started working with horses 17 years ago, primarily her service mini-horse, Mocha, and an Arabian mare, Emeera. She saw benefits not only muscularly, an advantage of riding the horses, but also mentally.
“I ride Emeera, I play with my mini-horses, but having an ongoing medical condition is not like a warm-fuzzy,” Schindler said. “There are good days and bad days. Sometimes you can wind up in a really dark place, but my horses and a lot of really good friends have helped me get to where I’m at now.
“I can have my worst day, but if I get near my horses, it gives me a more positive outlook.”
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body, according to the National MS Society. More common symptoms of MS are fatigue, numbness or tingling, weakness, walking difficulties and spasticity.
Schindler was diagnosed with MS at the age of 31 in 2000 after noticing early symptoms when she was working at Marshfield Clinic–Eau Claire Center.
Since the diagnosis, Schindler said there have been ups and downs to go along with the many doctors visits and hospital stays. But with help from family, friends and horses, she is now at a point that would have looked unlikely 20 years ago.
“I’m on the least amount of medication I’ve ever been on,” Schindler said. “This has been my best year since my diagnosis. (My doctor) said the reason I’m doing so amazing is I didn’t stop. He said, ‘You just kept going. You don’t feel sorry for yourself, you just find another way.’
“And now I’m having more good days than bad days.”
After years of working with horses on her Chippewa Falls-area farm that includes a competition-size outdoor riding arena, a tractor shed that has been converted into an indoor arena, a dairy barn that has been modified to include horse stalls, a quarantine area and room for horse boarding, Schindler has decided to officially open her farm to anyone looking for any possible health benefits that can come from working with horses by opening Holly’s Place to offer horse-assisted therapy.
“The kids and the adults love the idea that finally, after all these years, this is going to be positive for more people,” said Schindler, who volunteers with 4-H and as a MS support specialist. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Just go to Holly’s place.’ So now we’ve named it Holly’s Place, and we’re going to be able to do so much more for people.”
Holly’s Place has several certified peer support specialists on staff who will work with people of all ages on emotional, spiritual, physical and “coping with life” problems, Schindler said.
“Anybody can come here, and I will be my best to try to help,” Schindler said. “It started with me, because I need help. Then one of the kids helped out with a boarding horse, so I thought, let’s turn this into a mentoring thing, let’s share information, share education. I am wholeheartedly full of education here.”
Schindler said she decided to offer horse therapy because it worked for her, both emotionally and physically. The idea to offer horse therapy, she said, came from working with 4-H’ers and others who came to spend time with the horses.
“I was having so many kids coming here just to play with horses and help me out because I was in a wheelchair,” Schindler said. “While they were helping me out, they would open up and start a conversation and bring an awareness to me that we need to help.”
Holly’s Place will have therapists and trainers who will work with everyone from senior citizens to at-risk teenagers to trauma sufferers or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or post traumatic stress disorder. Instructors have also used horses for speech therapy, workforce development and helping people recovering from addictions, Schindler said.
“The horse-human connection is essential,” Schindler said. “Horses innately respond to the way people feel. If you are having a bad day and go out in my pasture, my horses would know it. Horses respond to body language, and if you’ve had a bad day, you’re all out there with horses.
“Not only that, but everybody, whether they have a horse or not, says when they come here, ‘This is a beautiful place. I feel like I can finally breathe when I come here.’”
Schindler said a key partnership in getting Holly’s Place started is with the Colorado-based organization Happiness Through Horses, a group that states its mission as being “to heal the hearts of struggling youth through bonding with horses.”
Schindler said she has seen amazing results from working with youth who are having a hard time socially or emotionally.
“The kids through horse therapy can do amazing things. And it doesn’t even have to be horse therapy; it can just be hanging out with the horses,” Schindler said. “They get used to the horses, and then they’ll open up, which is great.”
Schindler said her work with others often starts with tasks like brushing and feeding the horses and can expand as participants become more comfortable with the animals.
“It starts with a horse. If you start with something as simple as brushing a horse, from there, you can get a conversation going,” Schindler said. “And because we’re helping each other, they’re very much valued on the farm.
“We have quite a few kids who came and they were unsure of themselves and nervous and scared, but when they come and hang out with horses or hang out with me or with other kids, pretty soon they’re asking if they can come back and learn something else tomorrow.”
“We help each other out tremendously,” said Ella Gray, who boards her retired race horse at Schindler’s farm. “Having Holly out here and getting that ingrained in each other that we want to help each other out, that’s amazing.”
Gray has had her horse for six months but started coming to the farm to help out a few months before that.
“Our whole little thing here is just a super, super amazing idea,” Gray said. “Mentally, it’s been amazing out here. We have a lot of amazing people and amazing horses to help. I’m my absolute happiest out here with my horse and with everybody else’s horses.”
Schindler said seeing the benefits of her time working with horses since her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis inspired her to seek out information on the benefits of equine-assisted therapy and to pursue certifications in the practice.
“When you have an ongoing medical health diagnosis, it’s life-changing, and you have to figure out a way around it,” Schindler said. “I’ve taken a Holly approach, and I’ve done that. I’m a forever learner, and that’s the approach I’ve taken.”
Schindler said she continues to have good days and bad days, but it’s because of the help she has been offered in the 20 years since her MS diagnosis that she is able to begin offering assistance to others.
“Everybody who is here, is here because of their horses,” Schindler said. “It’s because of horses, we’ve developed these deep friendships.”