Dana Elizabeth Eklund
Liz Krause Williams | Sunday Feb. 2nd, 2014
Dana Elizabeth Eklund grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago that was named one of the “best places to live for the rich and single” in 2013. I laughed out loud at this random fact. Eklund, who moved to Bozeman in 2007, is the last person I’d peg as a resident of such notoriety. She exhibits a gentleness—a quiet connectedness to her surroundings that fooled me into believing she was a Montana native when we first met. Eklund claims that college brought her to Montana. I contend it was a combination of lacrosse, skiing, and horses.
A lacrosse player since the third grade, Eklund attended a prominent camp at Northwestern University where the women’s lacrosse team ranks fourth in NCAA rankings. The athletic teams at Eklund’s high school were highly competitive. She suggests that she made the lacrosse team simply because the sport was new to her school and needing players. She’s being modest. Clearly athletic and quietly driven, Eklund is unassuming but works hard to deliver. I’m sure her coach—who now lives in Amsterdam (the town in Montana, not the Netherlands)—would agree. Lacrosse laid the foundation for work ethic and drive that Eklund would later need in Montana.
Eklund grew up skiing at Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort in Illinois. The ski hill drops a mere 475 feet (compared to Big Sky’s more than 4000 feet vertical and nearly 2000 feet at Bridger Bowl) but bottoms on the banks of the Mississippi River. Eklund’s father was a ski instructor and both her parents raced at the Master’s Level. With Eklund and her sister, Tracy, in tow, her parents regularly traveled to Big Sky for ski races. These trips planted the “big sky country” seed in her heart.
Skiing also took Eklund to Utah, where her aunt worked at Deer Valley Ski Resort. The family trips, usually taken for white slopes longer than the Midwestern hills, included horse riding lessons. Bareback and riding double with her sister, her little legs stuck straight out over the round belly of the sorrel gelding. At six years old, she couldn’t imagine how those first few clippity-clops of hooves hitting the ground would influence her life’s course.
By high school, Eklund was leasing her first Quarter Horse mare named Annie. She worked off board by shoveling manure and tossing hay. Next, it was Kilo, an Arabian gelding that required four full days of barn chores each month in trade. He was green and Eklund, still learning how to train horses, wondered if Kilo’s owner shouldn’t be paying her to work with him instead. But she learned, and she made mistakes, and she began to listen to lessons the horse was teaching.
Before long, Eklund was ready to transition from leasing to owning. She found a three year-old gelding hot off the race tracks. Larry, or “Long-legged Larry” as he’s aptly known, ran a total of one race. At fifteen lengths behind at the finish line, he retired to the eager hands of Eklund. Like Kilo, he was green. He knew how to run a circle, but he needed to learn how to respond to a rider.
With those first few horses, Eklund began learning how to train a horse, a never-ending pursuit. She spent a lot of time watching other riders. She’d edge close to a riding lesson, eaves dropping on the discussions. She found that more often than not, when training a horse she was the one learning, adjusting, and modifying her behavior. From Eklund’s naturally-observant, persistent nature emerged the key to communicating with horses: listening. She noticed the little messages given with the flick of an ear or swoosh of a tail. She “listened” to the horses responses to cues. An almost unperceivable transfer of weight provided information.
After moving to Montana with Larry and popping through a few college majors—nursing, English, premed, French—Eklund stumbled on her calling. Working for Elle’s Belles Bakery, she was introduced to Eagle Mount’s equestrian program when the bakery donated to a fundraiser. She started volunteering with the equine programs and became the weekend feeder for the herd of sixteen.
Eagle Mount’s equestrian program offers riding and horsemanship lessons to participants with physical, emotional, or cognitive special needs. Eklund joined the staff in 2010 and became a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl) Certified Riding Instructor.
Eklund fell in love with the horses. Therapeutic horses are unique. They tend to have big hearts and an uncommon connection to the humans they serve. They seem to understand the importance of their job. To a therapeutic horse, being legs for someone who hasn’t been able to walk—providing the gentle lull of stride most of us take for granted—is important. These horses have a knack for creating joyful chatter in children who struggle to speak.
These horses work hard. Balancing unbalanced riders, carrying squirmy youngsters, and long days make burnout within a few years an industry standard for these animals. Eklund felt inspired by the herd’s job dedication and along with the Eagle Mount team, pursued a way to prevent the typical burnout.
The team began working with Karen Ososki, a local horse trainer and riding instructor whose techniques improve the health and well-being of the horse. Eklund saw dramatic results. The horses were more flexible, less stiff, more balanced, had longer endurance, and gained strength. While the horses at Eagle Mount were already exceptionally gentle and patient, with the new training methods they seemed happier, relaxed, and are generally more content.
Eklund is serious about keeping the horses happy and comfortable. As Assistant Director of the equestrian program, she teaches and coaches other riding instructors. She strives for continuous improvement in the program, streamlining, formalizing, and creating continuity for the benefit of the horses and participants.
The major benefits of Eklund’s job? Watching a heart-swell of joy wash over the face of a child who canters for the first time. Seeing a body, that looks frail in a wheelchair, gain strength and independence on the back of a horse. The endless smiles and pure delight so many people—young and old—experience from the touch of a horse. Helen Keller said “the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.”
Of the sixteen-head herd at Eagle Mount, Eklund says Broadway has the biggest heart. He’s been a therapeutic riding horse for twelve years, unheard of in the therapeutic industry. She attributes his longevity to the fact he loves his job and “his people.” Eklund intends to keep him strong and happy so he can continue working.
In December, Eklund will graduate from Montana State University with an Elementary Education Honors degree with a Reading Specialist Endorsement. She plans to continue helping the horses and humans at Eagle Mount experience health and happiness. In 2013, Eklund and her sister became co-owners of the Lil’ Shop of Horses in Belgrade. The consignment tack store is located at 91 N. Kennedy and is busting with everything horse-related. They are open Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
After spending time with Eklund, I came to an important understanding of her. She doesn’t just listen, she hears. She’s highly observant, noticing the subtleties and nuances expressed by both animal and human. It’s what makes her exceptional as a therapeutic riding instructor. She understands messages hidden behind learning disabilities. She comprehends the silent communication from a pony. It goes beyond the ability to listen. She understands. In short, Eklund has a gift for communication. The result is that her horsemanship is more like dancing than directing.
Retired lacrosse player, tomboy, horse-whisperer, teacher, heart-mender for the disabled, and business-owner. All this and Eklund is only 25 years old. Imagine what she’ll accomplish.
Dana Eklund lives in Bozeman with her beau, a puppy named Aleida, cat named Dewey, and her own mini-herd of horses in no particular order: Larry, Jag, Savannah, and Jameson.
Liz Krause Williams helps job seekers and brand-building professionals move forward with confidence as they pursue career ambitions. Learn more at www.occupationinnovation.com and follow Liz at facebook.com/occupationinnovation.