Carl Luepker: Building Communication and Trust Through Animals

Carl Luepker and his dog, Luna.

As a 2019-20 fellow in the Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (MNLEND) program, Carl Luepker spent time with Hold Your Horses, a Greenfield, Minnesota provider of occupational and physical therapy and mental health services using hippotherapy. The practice employs the gait and movement of horses to assist people with neurological and developmental disabilities or mental health issues. 

Luepker, a former elementary school teacher, was deeply impressed as he watched therapists work with victims of sexual assault. 

“It was magical to see how they connected with the horses and felt safe,” Luepker said. “One thing I learned from Hold Your Horses was how important it is to communicate across species, without words, because words are hard sometimes.”

Luepker knows this intrinsically. He lives with issues related to dystonia, a progressive, painful nerve disease that causes muscle spasms and speech difficulties. He has undergone several surgeries, most recently a spinal fusion procedure in January to strengthen his vertebrae. 

Still, he is pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Adler Graduate School, and has about a year of coursework left to complete. When he finishes, he hopes to integrate his golden retriever, Luna, into a counseling practice.

“Because, who doesn’t trust a golden retriever?” he quips. Having seen first-hand how horses can affect people, he is convinced Luna will make an excellent therapy partner.

“I find renewal myself at the dog park on Saturdays, and have seen children with intellectual disabilities just filled with joy there,” he said. “As soon as you enter the dog world, it’s just so much better. No one is not having a good time there.”