University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Horses and Healing

Rachel White Robinson sampled several careers before returning to school to pursue occupational therapy

Robinson coaches 7-year-old Claira as she rides Whisper, the horse. Claira has a brain condition that affects her motor skills and muscle strength, which can also affect her emotional well being. Her time with Rachel and Whisper helps on all fronts.
Photo credit: Caroline Yang

In 2012, Rachel White Robinson (B.A. ’05, M.A. ’20) and her husband, John Robinson, were Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco, where she was teaching English in a youth development center. It was an exciting experience—she’d left a job as a reporter with The Lakeland Times newspaper in Minocqua, Wisconsin, to take on the adventure.

Living in Morocco was a revelation in many ways, including the fact that so many people there had serious health conditions. “I felt my skills just weren’t enough,” she says. “Nobody needed English [teachers] there—people needed other things and I couldn’t provide them.”

This desire to be of direct service to people who need care turned extremely personal when, four months into their Morocco tenure, Robinson’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The couple moved back home to Minnesota to be with her. It was a devastating blow, made more painful by the fact that Robinson had lost her own mother to cancer a few years earlier.

Robinson had earned her undergraduate degree in philosophy at the U of M. Listening to her reflect on her life, it’s clear that she’s drawn to contemplating Big Questions. “I just started to think, ‘Wow, life is really short,’” she says. “You should just do what you love.”

While that urge to follow her passions was profound, it was followed by more questioning. She’d grown up in low-income housing and attended the U of M on an academic scholarship—she was the valedictorian of her class at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul. Plus, she had a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin. Was her desire to pursue more schooling for a dream job self-indulgent? Shouldn’t she make something more from the degrees she already had?

These are the questions Robinson was turning over when she returned to Minnesota. As she pondered, she volunteered for a local veterinarian, and took science classes at Minneapolis Community & Technical College that she’d need to apply for any kind of health care degree. She also volunteered at We Can Ride, an equine therapy nonprofit in Maple Plain, Minnesota.

Robinson discovered she loved working with horses and watching how interacting with them helped patients with disabilities and special needs.

It was a true lightning bolt moment. “Horses bring a nonjudgmental presence and a curiosity,” she says. She knew her future career would involve working with the large animals.

In 2015, a therapy aide job opened up at a similar program called Hold Your Horses (HYH), a nonprofit that provides equine-assisted psychotherapy and hippotherapy—a type of physical, occupational, and speech therapy that uses the natural gait and movement of a horse to aid the healing process—for people with physical, cognitive, and sensory impairments.

Working at HYH, located 45 minutes west of Minneapolis off a road lined with farmland, helped Robinson realize that she wanted to become an occupational therapist who works with horses. HYH’s executive director, Janet Weisberg, agreed to mentor her along the way.

Robinson finished a degree in occupational therapy from the U of M’s Center for Allied Health Programs in 2020; her daughter, Samantha, was born while she was in graduate school. Since then, she’s been an occupational therapist at HYH. She works with children with a range of diagnoses that include cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders.

“Occupational therapy is the use of an activity therapeutically,” she explains. “And the activity here is coming to the farm, getting on the horse, doing some activities on the horse to work on specific skills, whether it’s reaching or grasping or feeding the horse.”

Robinson is naturally energetic—it’s easy to see her as a high-achieving teenager. But, sitting at a picnic table near the HYH Barn, she’s makes it clear that she’s made tradeoffs to pursue her dreams. “I don’t take it for granted,” she says, gesturing at the riding ring, which almost glows in the later afternoon sun. “But I’ve had to fight for it. I don’t take trips and I used to love to travel.” In addition to her day job, she’s working as a part-time bartender at the Ordway Theater to help pay off her student loans.

Has it been worth it? Robinson doesn’t hesitate. “I lost both my mothers, and I think my daughter deserves to see me just go for it,” she says. “So I did.”

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