It’s a bright, breezy, beautiful Thursday afternoon, as you weave your way down the twisting backgrounds outside of Waverly’s city limits. Fields of corn sway in the wind, as a canvas of open, blue sky sports pristine clouds rolling by overhead. The only sound is that of tires biting gravel, the hum of an engine, and the distant call of cattle in a nearby farmer’s field.
Things, however, are lively at Freedom Farm, home to the Bjorklund family. Susie Bjorklund has been living here over two decades, pursuing her passion of horsemanship, healing, and freedom through equine therapy. She’s busy hurrying about, answering calls and hauling supplies for September 14’s Polo Event, the Farm’s biggest fundraiser of the year, which is fast approaching.
She welcomes you with a smile, first to the office, which is brimming with life. Two administrative workers are busy answering calls and handling paperwork, while Ruby, the farm’s curious pup, makes fast friends. Susie quickly excuses herself to make a call, then returns and ushers you from the office.
“Let’s find a place a bit quieter,” she comments brightly.
For Susie Bjorklund, a “bit quieter” is an ideal pole building, complete with chairs and tables set up in a casual classroom style. It’s quiet, save for the horse in one of the stalls, who snorts upon arrival of people. Hooves clop against the concrete floor, as he watches, intently hopeful for a snack, or interaction.
As you settle in across from Susie, she’s all smiles as she sits to talk on her favorite subjects – horses, and helping others. Dressed in work boots, a hat, and work jeans, she’s nothing short of what you’d expect of an established horsewoman, as she drinks her coffee. She sits across from you, embracing a moment of silence, and gestures to the room with a hand.
“This is actually one of our classrooms,” she explains.
Not long ago, Freedom Farm introduced an accredited high school program, Freedom Academy, for students with unique learning situations. With a focus on horsemanship, the Academy’s atmosphere is a traditional high school, with the added caveat that students learn horsemanship skills, how to ride, and the responsibility behind owning livestock.
The program has been wildly successful, with 16 enrolled students all dedicated to the program, and loving every minute of growing alongside horses and those passionate about them. Dedicated teachers and experienced horse-people work alongside these teens in this program to offer them a better chance at education.
“It’s amazing to see what this atmosphere offers kids,” she shares. “It’s a safe and alternate atmosphere. We’ve seen such great success.”
Along the same route, the farm’s Hope with Horses class offers the opportunity for horsemanship skills to be fostered. Riding is optional for this program, though students will learn how to care for animals, how to train them, problem-solve, and how to grow relationships with animals, as well as people.
Bjorklund grew up with horses her entire life, and never really removed herself from the atmosphere that she loved. She spent time in South Carolina after high school, training and teaching horsemanship with fellow horse-people. She was asked to participate in creating opportunities for kids with special needs, and offer therapy riding for them.
“That forever changed my heart towards this area of my life,” she explained. “I was no longer in the horse business because I loved the animals. I was wholly invested in how horses change lives and open doors of opportunity, and it has never ventured from that cause. I know it was God’s mission for my life.”
Freedom Farm, at its heart, is a therapy-riding 501(c)(3) organization that offers horseback riding as a therapy for children with special needs. Be it physical, emotional, mental, it doesn’t matter to the folks at Freedom Farm – their barn doors are opened for anyone wanting to connect to an animal and experience healing, from the inside out.
“Horses have this ability to break down barriers and create lasting relationships,” Bjorklund shared. “They do things people can’t, both physically and emotionally. They are phenomenal creatures.”
Bjorklund was commited to the work after starting small and seeing huge change in kids who enrolled in her program, even after the second ride. Kids who didn’t communicate verbally began growing in leaps and bounds, and now, she has kids who exercise verbal communication regularly, thanks to their interaction with riding teams, horses, and the opportunity to ride.
“This was about the impact, not the numbers. I didn’t necessarily think starting small was such a bad thing. I wanted change in the community of those with special needs, no matter what number we started with.”
On top of her background working with horses and teaching all levels of horsemanship, Bjorklund has a degree in nursing. While still actively licensed, she isn’t currently practicing, though she gets to use her knowledge and her skills in the medical field each and every day. Her nursing skills is an added comfort for her, and parents, when entering the arena.
Freedom Farm has been offering services for almost 19 years, and has expanded greatly in their area of service. While the core mission remains the same, Bjorklund’s operation has been able to open its doors to others struggling physically, mentally, and emotionally, Freedom Farm now offers services for veterans, teens, kids, and adults.
The program teams riders with a horse, which they get to assist in saddling and preparing to ride. The time preparing grows relationships between the horse and rider, as well as the team set in place to assist the rider around the arena, a team that consists of a leader and sidewalkers, who are all volunteers.
Currently, Freedom Farm has 12 horses that they use in therapy. “They’re all different,” Bjorklund shares with a smile. “They all have different personalities. Some work great for riding for the disabled, some do better with veterans. The horse is really the foundation of this program, and we are blessed with some great ones.”
Speaking to those struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bjorklund says there’s really no better atmosphere, in her mind, than being with a 1,200-pound animal. “You really have to learn to live in the moment with PTSD, since it is triggered from past events. This living in each moment is natural in the presence of a 1,000-pound animal, who you have to be mindful of. Not only does it promote mindfulness, but it allows veterans, for instance, to give back and fulfill that need to serve.”
One would think that such an involved program would be expensive, or require a lot of funding. While it is true that the services are specialized and that funds go into the program, financing isn’t something that gets in the way, if Bjorklund has her way.
“I don’t ever want to get into the practice of turning people away because of money,” she stated. “We are so fortunate to have generous connections, and prosperous fundraisers.”
Without the fundraisers, donors, and volunteers, Freedom Farm may not have ever become possible for the Bjorklund family. One such event is their biggest fundraiser of the year, the annual Polo Event, which is going on its 12th year this September 14.
The Polo Event draws professional polo players from all around to participate in a traditional polo match. The two teams are sponsored each year by organizations, and is always well-attended. Kids activities, food vendors, and opportunities to learn about Freedom Farm’s vision abound each year at the event, which draws together the community to rally behind the care of people within those specific communities.
The fundraising is achieved by entry fees, donations, and a live auction. “This event ensures we have funds to create scholarships and help people get this therapy. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do here as well as we have.”
Monetary donations aren’t the only thing the Farm seeks. Bjorklund shared, they are always in need of riding boots and gear, as well as volunteers. And, they are always “on the lookout” to welcome retired show-horses to their Farm, who understand the jobs they have to do each and every time they step into the arena.
Currently, three of Freedom Farm’s mounts are entering retirement, within the year. They are currently looking for four more horses to welcome to their operation, as well as volunteers to see that they accomplish great, and proud, work.
“I feel really strongly that anyone can give to their community and make a change, better and stronger. There are more ways to work at Freedom Farm than just dealing with horses; there’s always something to do. I want to foster the spirit of the volunteer, and help you grow by helping others around you. The list, and the need, is endless. Take action.”
To volunteer, ask questions, or see how you can make a difference, give Susie Bjorklund a call down in Waverly. She also invites you to their Polo Event, which takes place on Saturday, September 14, beginning at 12:30 p.m. at BlackBerg Ranch, in Watertown. Tickets to the Polo Event are $20, kids 14 years and younger are free.
For more information on Freedom Farm, visit their website online: www.freedomfarmMN.org, or call 952-955-2505.