ABOVE PHOTO: Toni Mattson, co-owner of Trinity Equestrian Center of Eau Claire, speaks about the importance of equine assisted therapy in helping veterans better deal with the adverse impacts of their time in the military. UWRF/Pat Deninger photo.
When Toni Mattson, her husband William and her sister established Trinity Equestrian Center in 2002, they envisioned numerous ways, from trail rides to horse boarding and training, that their business could provide enjoyment and benefit the surrounding community.
In ensuing years, the Mattsons provided those activities and more at their horse business just south of Eau Claire. But as time progressed they decided to change their operation and focus on offering equine assisted therapy for people in need of it and to develop youth mentoring and leadership training.
Among the most important parts of that change in business has been providing equine assisted therapy to military veterans, Mattson told an audience attending Thursday’s Veterans Day ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. The event also included addresses by American Legion Post 121 River Falls Commander Larry Larson, UWRF Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs David Travis and UWRF Information and Technology Director Joe Kmiech.
“For years, a big part of our business had to be about making a living, paying the bills,” Mattson said. “Then we were able to make a shift from making a living to making a difference. The idea is we know we have so many hours in this life. How do you make as big of a difference as you can with the time that you have?”
That idea of maximizing impact prompted the switch to a more therapy-driven business model, Mattson said. The focus on providing veterans with a better way to deal with the adverse impacts of their military service was also motivated in part by a frightening experience Mattson, then 9, had with her father, Charles Schmidt, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran. That instance was a sign that her father was struggling with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, Mattson said.
“It was a very powerful experience,” Mattson said. “It’s something that has stayed with me to this day.”
Many veterans struggle following their service as they attempt to adapt to civilian life, Mattson said, and equine therapy has proven to be an effective means of addressing their challenges.
“It’s amazing to see the change that comes over the veterans when they are with the horses,” she said. “You can see the stress melt away, see them make a connection to the horse.”
Trinity Equestrian Center also provides equine therapy for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well as to people afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. In addition, the organization provides leadership training to groups and organizations.