A local librarian knew she wanted to harness the tranquility of the Aroostook outdoors and the healing personality of horses.
So when Sonja Eyler and her husband, Steve, moved into a century-old Presque Isle farmhouse with an attached three-story barn seven years ago, they formed the idea of East of Eden Stables.
The stable opened in 2019 as a therapeutic equestrian center. Eyler, a longtime horsewoman, was drawn to the idea of using the animals to help young people experiencing disabilities, anxiety, emotional turmoil and other conditions. Learning to ride and care for a horse requires a deliberate focus that helps daily stressors melt away, she said.
Mental health was a top priority in Aroostook County in the 2022 Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment Report, which said there are not enough providers and facilities to treat those in need. Local schools have said bullying, unstable home situations and even homelessness are affecting students’ mental and emotional well-being. East of Eden works to bond kids with animals to give them positive experiences to build on.
“When a kid is on a horse, some of those things they encounter from their diagnoses go away,” said Eyler, who is also the director of the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle. “All they’re thinking about is being on the horse.”
Before opening East of Eden, Eyler trained at Riding to the Top therapeutic riding center in Windham, where she worked with kids and adults with various conditions, including those who had brain injuries and other types of trauma.
The stable’s name is appropriate for a book lover — Eyler is a fan of John Steinbeck. But there’s another namesake: granddaughter Eden Shaw. The center’s riding paths, Ivy Trails, are named for Eden’s younger sister, Ivy.
The Allen Road homestead belonged to Marilyn and Russ Allen, and most recently had been used by a veterinarian, Eyler said. The couple wanted to turn the historic site into a place both kids and adults could enjoy, while also helping them get in touch with The County’s farming heritage.
“Our community is deeply entrenched in agriculture and we are rekindling that,” Eyler said. “To be around livestock and horses is something people have done in our community for a long time.”
From the successes she witnessed in Windham, she knew there was a place for an equestrian therapeutic center in Aroostook County. She had no idea it would take off as it has.
The stable has 33 horses, including some who board there, and has a two-year waiting list to get into some of its programs. Programs serve about 40 kids per week in the winter and 60 in the summer, she said. There are also adults and groups who attend rides and retreats, including camps and a mother-daughter night.
Community outreach includes hosting events with the Easton and Presque Isle recreation departments and visiting local schools. A pony named Freya has become a favorite with people and has even lent her special personality at the Aroostook House of Comfort, a hospice and respite care center.
On a recent sunny winter day, a school bus dropped off students and leaders from the Limestone Community School’s Outdoor Club, who were bound for a snowshoe hike to help tamp down the riding trails. A staff member worked with someone in the outdoor riding arena, and inside the busy barn kids learned how to groom horses and helped with chores.
In the arena is a ramp from which people can mount the horses. Not everyone who participates has the use of their legs, Eyler said.
Numerous young people come to the stable after school, where they help with the horses under the watchful eyes of volunteer mothers, Eyler said. Older kids learn how to help the younger ones. The goal is to give kids a place to hang out, while teaching them how to interact safely with the horses.
“Horses don’t care about your appearance, socioeconomic status or anything else,” she said. “They care that your heartbeat matches theirs and that you are kind.”
Horses are sensitive to human feelings, so if someone comes in stressed, they must learn to regulate their energy and emotions so the horse will feel safe, she said.
While grooming or riding a large animal, kids focus on the tasks at hand. Not thinking about other stressors gives them a sometimes much-needed break, Eyler said. And accomplishing tasks like riding can boost self-confidence.
Emily Peers of Presque Isle has seen tremendous changes in one of her daughters since participating at East of Eden. Her daughter had experienced bullying at school, which led to some mental health issues, Peers said.
“The confidence piece has really been huge,” Peers said. “One thing Sonja does really well is teaching kids to build their confidence and find their own voice. She’ll never know what it means to us.”
The stable’s programs have helped her daughter come out of her shell. Peers believes it’s because she not only learned to ride, but learned how to regulate her emotions to communicate positively with the horses.
Peers also volunteers as the stable’s business manager and helps oversee the young participants.
Liza Leavitt has been coming to East of Eden for four and a half years.
“Say I’ve had a really bad day. It’s easy for me to come here and calm down,” Leavitt said.
The Eylers and supporters are raising money to build an indoor arena, which would allow training to take place when the weather is uncooperative. Some participants also have sensory issues that make it difficult to participate when it’s too windy, cold or hot, Eyler said.
She is overjoyed to see the stable so active. The fact that it helps kids overcome struggles, while giving them something to do that involves real interactions and being outdoors, is like a magic formula, she said.
The many volunteers coming together to help kids learn makes it a community enterprise.
“I have had people say they can’t tell which kid belongs to which mom, because the moms take care of all the kids,” she said. “When I heard people say that, I realized we were doing something very right.”