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Retired Canterbury thoroughbreds provide mental health support for racing industry and beyond

Abijah's on the Backside provides unconventional therapy for those dealing with mental health issues.

SHAKOPEE, Minn. — Just this week, Canterbury Park announced the entire staff is grieving the loss of Alex Canchari. Canchari was a young, star jockey who was following in the footsteps of his father and brother. 

His death shines a light on mental health in the horse racing industry.

If there's glitz and glamor to horse racing, it's closely followed by its shadow of extreme pressure.

"They only remember your last win, and that's how you get paid — by winning," Mark Irving said. 

Irving lived and breathed the life of a jockey for 20 years, alongside the best thoroughbreds. He said he's all too familiar with the stresses that quickly add up.

"It's a lot of pressure to produce, and it's all about win percentage," he said. "And then you have to keep your weight down, like gymnasts and ice skaters, you have to keep your weight down. You have to stay — I would say, 112, 113 pounds — and we're grown men."

And so when Irving's racing chapter ended, he said he wanted to save lives.

That's when he crossed paths with Sally Mixon, founder of Abijah's on the Backside. 

"Abijah's is a mental health equine experiential program that works with primarily backside workers," CEO and founder Sally Mixon said. "And backside workers are jockeys, grooms, exercise riders and anybody who works in the racing industry."

Along with licensed counselors, the stars of Abijah's are the retired thoroughbreds from Canterbury Park.

They, too, understand racing and all its consequences.

"They are incredibly healing," Mixon said. "They're big; you can't control them, right? They want a relationship with you. There are so many qualities that they bring, that humans can't. A lot of times traditional talk therapy doesn't work for people. This is another resource out there. It's gaining a lot of momentum."

Another ray of hope is that the horses themselves are saved.

"The horses that Sally takes into the program have no worth," Irving explained. "They have a major injury that they can't breed, and cannot move onto a second career, and they know. They know their lives have been saved to help us. That's the miracle right there."

Saved by the saved — a feeling that words cannot describe.

"It's a higher power, for sure, that goes through these horses. I believe that anyway," Irving said. "And when you are around them, everything just seems right, it seems fine. Like you're going to make it, and the day is your friend."

"We begin to see their stories played out by what these horses do," Mixon said, explaining how the horses pick up on her clients' emotions. "I tell people every day that I get to watch miracles happen; like, that's my job, and it's pretty powerful."

Abijah's on the Backside offers sessions to anyone interested. The sessions take place at Canterbury Park in Shakopee during the racing season. 

For folks who have served in the military and for first responders, they offer their sessions free of charge. 

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