Words by Anna Lee Vaughn | Images by Justin Hunter
Horses have always been part of Meghan Sutherland’s life.
“My parents raised quarter horses, and my dad and stepdad team roped; I remember going to a rodeo almost every weekend,” she says.
Meghan grew up in Winston County but moved to Walker County for her junior year of high school. She attended Wallace State Community College to become a medical assistant. But, in her words, “I figured out really quick that was not what I wanted to do.”
Her next steps led to working at Northwest Alabama Mental Health Center. She started at Northwest’s Crisis Residential Unit in Carbon Hill and has held several positions within the organization since then; however, Meghan’s current role is what she feels she was destined for. It combines the best of both worlds, helping others and spending every day with horses.
EASI (Equines Assisting Special Individuals) was originally a standalone non-profit started by Kim Pickard. Due to a lack of funding, Northwest Alabama Mental Health Center acquired EASI in 2018.
“My boss came in, and I was in the middle of a CPR class. He said, ‘You’re going to like where I’m going.’ And I asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m going out to EASI.’ And I really wanted to go,” says Meghan.
Unfortunately, EASI’s staff was already full at the time, but that did not stop her; as soon as there was an opening, she jumped on it and has now built a lifelong career from a lifelong passion. Today, she serves as the Program Coordinator for EASI.
Anyone with a mental health diagnosis can come to the ranch and have therapy experiences while working with horses. Clients can learn basic living skills, stress management, behavioral education and communication, and how to live a healthy lifestyle, all from staff with equestrian backgrounds. Meghan herself has credentials from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International as an equine specialist in mental health and learning, and she is also certified as an Equine Specialist by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) Model. She encourages anyone with a mental health diagnosis that has not benefited from traditional therapy to try EASI.
“We do all this with the horses, so it’s a different kind of learning. For instance, a horse has nutritional needs. We have nutritional needs. How do we meet both of those goals?” she says. “It’s such a cool thing to see people progress from where they were to being more independent in their lives. And to be able to help somebody and get to be with horses all day is just incredible. The combination of the two couldn’t be a better fit for me.” WL