Horses used with victims of fetal alcohol syndrome
BROOKSTON, Minn. — If he’s feeling stressed, Joe Zak sometimes wanders out to the barn and spends time brushing one of the four horses.
Zak is one of nine clients living at RSI Westbrook, a 160-acre farm and residence for people with fetal alcohol syndrome/effect, a developmental condition in which fetal exposure to alcohol leads to impaired development and behavior.
In its rural setting west of Duluth, Westbrook keeps four horses and a mule as a way for its clients to learn responsibility and independence — often tough lessons for people with FAS/E, who often respond poorly to authority and might lack good judgment.
Zak, who at 25 has been in and out of care facilities since he was 6, said Westbrook stands out.
"This place is different," he told the Duluth News-Tribune.
Residents at Westbrook stay as long as they need to. The goal is to prepare them for a more independent living situation.
"Some are two years, some are three, some are four," said Pam Hagenah, the program’s riding instructor. "The goal is to teach them the skills they’d need living out on their own."
The residents also care for chickens and cows, and they grow tomato and pepper plants. The cows are butchered and the produce sold, providing residents with some income.
"It’s really good to have a structured routine, and the farm is great for that," program manager Travis Dombrovski said. "Out in the country here, it’s the best place for them."
Caring for animals provides what Dombrovski called a natural consequence system — if clients don’t comb and saddle a horse, for example, they’re not allowed to go riding.
The program is providing a benefit to FAS/E sufferers who don’t always respond to traditional kinds of therapy, said Susan Terwey, a program director for the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Talk therapy often provides little benefit for people with FAS/E, because they sometimes have poor memories and an inability to express themselves clearly.
Being around animals can be beneficial, though, because large, comparatively intelligent animals like horses inspire feelings of tenderness and respect.
"Being around animals causes (people with FAS/E) to be attentive," she said. "They’re encouraged to stop and think. Horses, I think, can just be calming."
Westbrook’s horse program has operated for three years now, and Dombrovski said it’s unique to the state. It’s also popular: Westbrook has a referral list about 15 clients long.
Dombrovski said it’s not for everybody. Some clients, he said, view Westbrook as a "mini-jail" where they’re too far from their families and trapped in a boring lifestyle.
Not Zak, who said Westbrook is the place he’s been seeking for years. He has his own room in one of the farm’s residence buildings, he loves working with the horses, and he’s able to hike to the nearby St. Louis River where he can scout out fishing spots.
"What’s nice is that I’m trusted enough to come down here and fish if I want," Zak said. "There aren’t a lot of places like this."