AKELEY, Minn. -- Jack Pine Stables outside this north-central Minnesota community is helping riders of all ages and abilities through a unique type of therapy built through interactions with horses.
Riders with the nonprofit organization Jack Pine Stables include those with physical and emotional challenges as well as wounded warriors with post-traumatic stress disorder. About half of the riders come from group homes.
Kris Oppegaard started the organization in 2000 and recently turned the reins over to Teri Gapinski when the Oppegaards sold their farm. At 77 years old, Oppegaard said it was time.
“Teri had been working with me for 12 years and wanted to continue the program,” she said. “I still plan to be very involved as a volunteer and partner.”
Gapinski is certified by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. She became involved in the program while working as a paraprofessional for students with disabilities in the Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District.
“I’ve loved horses since I was a little girl,” she said. “What really got my heart involved was a student I worked with who was also a rider at the stables. I started going out once a week to volunteer and it grew from there.”
Emeline Cook of Akeley donated the 40-acre site for the new ranch. “It was an amazing gift,” Gapinski said. “I had never met her before. When we got our horses moved here in July of 2020 we had a picnic so people could come and see the new location. Emeline came. As we walked up the hill, she told me she prayed this would be a big success and we’d bring a lot of happiness to a lot of people.”
Oppegaard is also a PATH certified instructor. Before starting the original Jack Pine Stables, she worked as a psychiatric and surgical nurse.
“We already had the land and the arena,” she said. “I was a member of the Cass County Mounted Posse and several posse members wanted to volunteer. “
She said the relationship between horses and riders is a partnership.
“Horses are very gentle creatures and mirror the rider’s mood,” she said.
Some riders have been coming for 12 years. “It has been fun to follow their progress and see the confidence they gain,” she said.
Equine therapy offers many physical benefits.
“We’ve had quite a few people with cerebral palsy,” Oppegaard said. “Riding a horse is good for them. The horse’s body is warmer than the person’s body. We often have them ride without a saddle because this warms their legs and loosens them up. Lying down on the horse relaxes their arms. Sitting on the horse and moving their body with the horse is pretty close to a walking movement. This is good physical therapy and strengthens the core muscles.
“But the biggest benefit of all is an increase in self-esteem. At first, many of the riders are too scared to get on a horse. So when they do, it’s a really big deal. As they progress, it’s a real feeling of pride and accomplishment.”
Equine therapy also provides mental health benefits. ”Horses are very giving and accepting,” she said. “Being around horses is very calming. There’s an emotional bond with the horse, a connection that enriches their lives.”
Riders have the same horse each time they visit. Horses are selected based on character traits. “We’ve had Arabs, quarter horses and Icelandic horses,” she said.
Since 2002, riders have participated in a Special Olympics horse show most summers at the Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd.
“The riders love the competition,” she said.
On a mission
The ranch’s mission is striving to empower people with physical, mental or emotional challenges and limitations through equine assisted services.
“Some riders have been very physically disabled and have required a lot of assistance,” Oppegaard said. “We’ve had as many as five volunteers helping one person ride.”
Oppegaard said one of the greatest satisfactions for her over the years has been seeing riders grow in confidence.
“We’ve had some riders coming since we first opened up,” she said. “In the beginning, they were unable to ride at all, and now two are excellent riders. It’s a lot of fun to see that progression.”
- RELATED: Read more wellness stories in NewsMD
As a nonprofit organization, Jack Pine Stables depends on grants and donations.
“We only charge our riders $10 per hour,” she said. “The community has been very supportive through organizations, such as the American Legion and the Lions Club. Some of our money comes from businesses, too.”
Enbridge recently donated $10,000 to the program. “We’ve used that money for fencing and improving the road coming into the new place,” Oppegaard said.
The ranch participates in a Wounded Warriors Weekend every October. Veterans and their families stay at Hiawatha Beach Resort and participate in a variety of fun activities in the area.
“We do an hour-long trail ride with between 60 and 70 people participating,” Oppegaard said. “We use our own horses and other people we know bring their horses. They have so much fun and are so appreciative.”
Jack Pine Stables also sponsors an event each fall to raise awareness about the struggles veterans face.
Gapinski and her friend DeLaine Wagner developed the Ride 22 event three years ago.
“It’s a cause that's near and dear to my heart,” she said. “These veterans are losing their lives to depression after they come home. With everything happening right now in Afghanistan, it’s even harder because some of them are feeling that everything they did over there was futile.”
The ride goes through the Paul Bunyan State Forest with a stop for lunch. “It’s so beautiful up here in the fall,” she said.
The ride begins at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10 at Jack Pine Stables with ATV and OHV riders going first followed by horses. There is no fee, but donations to Jack Pine Stables are welcome. Riders need to bring their own horses. For more information, go to the Jack Pine Stables Facebook page or call Gapinski at 218-820-0662. Donations may also be sent to Jack Pine Stables at 23940 291st Ave. Akeley, MN 56433.
Gapinski said this first season was just the start. “I’m ready for whatever God has in store for us,” she said.
“My goal for the future is to raise funds to build an indoor arena and be open nine months each year, and also do more with veterans and students at risk. I also want to find more volunteers.”