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First responders may be on track for horse-assisted mental health therapy

Bloomington Police Officer Angela Borchardt testifies before the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee Jan. 26 in support of HF506, sponsored by Rep. Jon Koznick, right. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)
Bloomington Police Officer Angela Borchardt testifies before the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee Jan. 26 in support of HF506, sponsored by Rep. Jon Koznick, right. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)

There is a police officer and firefighter shortage across the state, in part due to first responders leaving their professions because of the job-related trauma they face daily.

Rep. Jon Koznick (R-Lakeville) wants to reverse that trend by expanding the mental health services they can receive.

And it'd be by a four-legged creature.

He sponsors HF506, which would fund a pilot project to offer horse-assisted mental health therapy to first responders suffering from job-related trauma and PTSD.

“It’s well-researched therapy,” he said.

The bill would appropriate $250,000 in fiscal year 2024 to the Office of Justice Programs for a grant to Abijah’s on the Backside, a mental health practice incorporating retired off-track thoroughbred horses.

Therapy sessions would take place at Abijah’s facility at Canterbury Park.

House public safety committee hears equine therapy bill 1/26/23

The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee laid the bill over Thursday for future consideration.

According to the organization’s website, much of the healing is done without words, in stark contrast to traditional talk-therapy.

That technique was a perfect fit for Angela Borchardt, a former Northfield and MSP Airport police officer who started to experience debilitating job-related stress in March 2022.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “I was having trouble concentrating, was paranoid, no short-term memory and I was vomiting many nights.”

She also felt pressure to keep her symptoms hidden, a common occurrence in her profession.

“The stigma of other officers finding out I was struggling was enormous,” Borchardt said.

Paired with two thoroughbreds, who she interacted with while alongside Sally Mixon, Abijah’s founder, Borchardt said the two horses seemed to intuitively know what she was experiencing and acted it out for her.

As she watched one horse showing dominance over the other by relentlessly pestering it, she began to understand how her law enforcement life was stifling and overwhelming her personal life.

That insight was the breakthrough she needed to begin her journey to recovery, she said.

“Because of Abijah’s I am alive and discovering joy once again.”

The bill proposes funding for peace officers and full-time or volunteer firefighters to undergo therapy at Abijah’s.

Rep. Jeff Witte (R-Lakeville) said he’d like to see paramedics and EMTs be eligible because they also suffer job-related trauma and there is also a shortage of these professionals across the state.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota said in a statement that equine-assisted therapy has shown promising results in several research studies.

“We are glad to see HF506 as one of many recent efforts to break down barriers in jobs where asking for help has not always been easy. … Officers are more likely to seek care when they are confident that their privacy is safe – the program that would be funded by this grant provides exactly that.”

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