By Margaret Downing


Lucky was the first therapy horse at Lucky Farms in Durand.

What is “EAGALA?” The letters stand for “Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Personal Development (PD).” Judy Cunningham of Durand is an Ed.D. Counselor and EAGALA, Positive Psychology Coach at Lucky’s Farm in rural Durand, and follows this philosophy: “Hope is faith at work. Therapy is hope in life’s journey” in, not only helping rescued horses but also in helping people through their journeys. Lucky is in reference to a rescued horse.

Per the organization’s website, “Lucky Farms Animal Rescue is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and placing animals into responsible and loving forever homes. While we are not a breed specific rescue, an emphasis is placed on rescuing giant breeds, as they do not thrive in a shelter environment. We believe in second chances.

“We are a foster-based rescue. While pets are in our charge they receive the best possible medical care, behavioral assessments and/or training and are treated like members of the family in our foster homes.
“Lucky Farms Animal Rescue is a registered 501C3 non-profit organization. We solely rely on donations to provide supplies and medical care to our rescue animals.”

Cunningham explains, “Lucky, a Shireland, was our first rescue. He had one blue eye and one black eye, which for shires is a bad trait so he was going to be gotten rid of. Lucky was the answer to prayers…the 4-H kids toured Shireland and Lucky was a suckling colt by his mother who walked up to the 4-H kids (very unusual for a baby colt). My son wanted his own horse instead of sharing with me so he prayed for Lucky and he came to be purchased by us because of a mistake on my paychecks that was discovered by auditors the weekend after the 4-H tour of Shireland. 

“Lucky was trained by my son and he was in parades and many festivals. Lucky loved people and was always gentle around people. He passed on three years ago.

“Lucky was the first therapy horse – he was able to connect with people who visited us or saw him at an event and the people felt his gentleness.”

How did Judy come to be in the field she is in? She notes, “Originally, I went to college to become a math teacher. I chose to student teach in the inner city because I was from a farm with no city experience other than visits. During my student teaching, my professor from NIU came to watch me working with a group of boys involved in gangs. My professor asked where I learned to talk to the boys after observing me; I shrugged my shoulders and said, I don’t know.” He asked if I was interested in becoming a counselor.  I replied, ‘What is a counselor?” He explained and I was offered a scholarship for a Masters Degree in counseling.

“I have been a counselor working with at-risk students now for 45 years. Four years ago, I worked in the private sector practice with students who were in a residential program for the seriously mentally ill. I learned that I could really ‘make a difference’ and that my passion for horses not only was effective but more successful for therapy.”

Judy notes, “I have a doctorate in counseling from NIU, as well as Positive Psychology Coach certificates and EAGALA certification. EAGALA is an international method of therapy transforming mental health through horses. I have recently moved my whole practice to Lucky’s Farm, Inc. at 10748Patterson Road in Durand. We are just one mile south of Route 75 or five miles north of Route 20. We have a website The business phone is (815) 248-9242. A Face Book page is in the works.”

She is a local gal explaining, “I grew up on a farm on Route 75 where we had dairy cows, pigs, beef cattle, as well as crops. I worked driving tractors for harvesting as well as helping with the dairy cows. Horses were our family’s pleasure activity where we went on trail rides and went camping.  

Through Eagle, Judy says, “Mental health counseling at Lucky’s Farm can be an add-on to a present therapy situation or it can be the only therapy for mental health issues. The difference in therapy at Lucky’s Farm from other types of therapy is the site of therapy.

“The therapy will be conducted in either an indoor or outdoor or round pen with the mental health therapist (counselor), an equine specialist (watch for safety in the horses), and two or more free rein (loose no halters) horses. The horses read the body language of the client (because they are an animal of prey and their survival depends on this sense) and respond. It is this response that triggers an emotional response on the client’s part.  The client’s emotional response becomes a metaphor for healing – healing from the inside out. It is this metaphor that helps the life story change. The present therapist is welcome to join the mental health specialist and equine specialist in the ring with the client. The mental health specialist only asks to have half an hour of time with the present therapist to discuss the method and the treatment plan.

“Referrals can come from anywhere. Winnebago, Stephenson, and DeKalb are counties that we serve but the reality is anyone is able to come to the farm for treatment.

“Mental health issues occur because the human is struggling with thoughts and may not even have the words to deal with the thoughts. EAGALA uses ‘clear language’ and metaphor as part of the treatment; it is through these two concepts that the client may find words for the mental health issue. The horse movement in the arena creates thoughts and feelings on the part of the client that help the client enlighten and verbalize their struggles. The setting of the farm also helps to create a change in the thoughts.

“The client determines how many sessions they attend. 

EXAMPLE: a client experiencing PTSD is in the arena with three horses (one black, one spotted, and one brown) and the mental health specialist, and the equine specialist. 

 The client is asked to use this space to share present feelings.  

*”Horse time: As the client is in the arena, the brown horse walks up to the client and looks at his face. The client returns the look, horse moves closer; soon the client is petting the horse. The black horse goes to the client who is petting the brown horse and also looks at the client. The client now has a hand on each horse petting and cuddling.  Horses are responsive positively to the client’s attention. The client’s body language to the mental health specialist and equine specialist is (herd). The brown horse turns its head and puts ears back, which is horse language to ‘stay away.’ The spotted horse walks to the corner.

“Circle up is the conclusion of a session: The client was asked what was happening and says he felt safe for the first time because the two horses were around him and when the third horse tried to join the group, he felt protected because the brown horse made the spotted horse go away from the group. The mental health therapist asks questions related to feeling safe and protected.

“There is no riding of the horses – all feet are on the ground, humans and horses.

“Sessions are generally an hour and consist of three parts: use the space to show feelings (there are items in the arena that can be placed to do this, as well as the horses and staff) and time with the arena space and horses and circle up. 

“There is success with this method because of the horses, clear language, and mental health movement at the thoughts of the client. Many times the therapist ‘tells the client’ what to do with the feelings which may or may not connect with the client. In EAGALA, the client connects with the horses for the therapy and changes in feelings are a result of this connection, which is reinforced by the mental health specialist and the equine specialist. This is a solution-orientated therapy. 

“The most famous group for PTSD is the veteran’s programs. Depression, autism spectrum, addictions, guilt and loss, ADHD, teenage issues, bipolar, and schizophrenia are treated using EAGALA.   

EAGALA’s philosophy is about holding space, believing in the innate abilities of our clients and horses, avoiding judgment and interpretation, embracing confidentiality and emotional safety and mastering skill sets that apply to many different areas of life. 

“We have a sliding fee schedule so finances or lack of insurance should not determine whether you try Lucky’s Farm for mental health issues.

“The training for EAGALA certification is intense once you have been accepted.  The qualifications for the equine specialist are 6,000 hours of work with horses before you are allowed to attend the week-long beginning training. This week-long training is followed by an exam which you need to pass. After passing the exam, you can practice with a mental health specialist only. The mental health specialist has to fulfill the outlined certification to practice for their mental health area.” 

Judy has a doctorate in counseling from NIU. She explains that training is ongoing throughout the year both by webinar twice a month and networking meetings. 

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