The wounds of war are not always easy to see.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘You don’t look disabled,’ ” says Tim, who was a member of the Kentucky National Guard when he was called to serve as an E5 sergeant in Operation Desert Storm in 1990. “Well, what am I supposed to be?” he asks. “Limbless?”
In the 22 years since his tour of duty, Tim has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and agoraphobia. “I spent the majority of 12 years backed out of society,” he says. From 2000 to 2004, I wouldn’t even come out of my house.”
Tim sought help in 1994, beginning rounds of therapy, medication and even anger management. “It began a long road of trying to learn how to articulate what was going on inside of me,” he says now. “It’s like a kid who says he’s got a bellyache, but you know, that’s a huge area. It could be anywhere.”
Last year, at the encouragement of his wife, Tim found a counselor of a different sort: Jack, a coal-black Tennessee Walker in an equine-assisted therapy program called Horses for Heroes—officially, PATH International Equine Services for Heroes—which uses horses to give veterans and their families physical, psychological and emotional help. Participating in the program at the Appalachian Foothills Therapeutic Equestrian Center (AFTEC) in Richmond was at first “a tug of war,” he says. “I had issues trusting people. I dropped out; I dropped back in, but slowly but surely, I fell in love.”
In 2010, Kentucky launched its first Horses for Heroes programs at AFTEC and at the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope Center (CKRH) at the Kentucky Horse Park. With the endeavor, the Commonwealth joined the nearly 200 equine programs for veterans operating nationwide. It may have come not a moment too soon. According to the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, Kentucky has nearly 340,000 veterans, and many of them face special challenges: catastrophic injuries, depression, PTSD, and related issues of substance abuse, as well as difficulty transitioning to civilian life and the stress of changed family dynamics. By harnessing its greatest asset—the horse—Kentucky is providing a unique treatment option for its troubled vets.
“People benefit from having different mediums for expression,” says Dr. Cynthia Dunn, a psychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Lexington. Dunn donates her time to the Horses for Heroes program at CKRH. “To me, equine therapy offers an alternative to traditional psychotherapy and is comparable to art and music therapies.”
“Horses do provide unique opportunities for growth,” says Cheryl Martin, who runs AFTEC with her husband, Mark. “For some of us, just being around one of these beautiful creatures can provide a feeling of calm and well-being.”
Equine-assisted therapy is not new. Hippotherapy, a form of physical therapy that incorporates a horse’s movements, dates back to the ancient Greeks. But the modern embodiment in the U.S—that is, any equine-assisted activity for people with special needs—gained prevalence in 1969 with the formation of PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (originally the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association). “Services were being provided well before that,” says Kaye Marks, PATH’s director of marketing and communications, “but centers were opening that were not the safest.”
PATH was designed to act as a governing body. With more than 800 centers globally, PATH provides certification for instructors and formally accredits centers offering equine programs of any kind. A PATH Premier Accredited Center is one that has undergone rigorous assessment. The Central Kentucky Riding for Hope Center is the only Premier Accredited Center offering military services in the state. Appalachian Foothills is a PATH Member Center working toward accreditation.
The program introduced at CKRH was a pilot study conducted in partnership with the Lexington VA Medical Center and sponsored by AT&T to provide mental-health services to military personnel in treatment for alcohol and drug recovery and PTSD. That study concluded last year, but CKRH continues to offer vets a variety of therapy options: mounted and non-mounted equine-assisted activities, equine-assisted therapy, and a limited amount of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which is done with a licensed therapist.
It’s about setting goals, says CKRH Program Director Denise Spittler. “Everybody is at a different point, and we try to offer something for everybody. We’re very driven by community needs,” she says, “and so we’ve started building programs to meet those needs.” To that point, CKRH will soon kick off a Transitions Program that will focus on the specific hurdles of returning to civilian life after combat.
AFTEC also became involved with Horses for Heroes in 2010, when it received a call from Nancy, who was looking for equine therapy for her son, Drew, an Iraq veteran who is a paraplegic. Drew had done some riding as part of a therapeutic program in Aspen, Colo. “They put him on a Belgian, and that horse was so big, someone was able to sit behind him and hold him up,” says Nancy. “He was just as happy as can be. He was so content up there.” To best serve Drew, AFTEC’s Mark Martin built a handlebar, much like one on a bicycle, and attached it to the horn of a western saddle. With the makeshift device, Drew can push off and hold his body up while on a horse. “Drew has had ongoing occupational, physical and speech therapies,” says Nancy, “but I believe this has been as beneficial to his progress—if not more so—as anything we’ve done.”
Using equines to treat vets garnered widespread attention in 2006 when now-retired Navy Commander Mary Jo Beckman co-founded a study at Fort Meyer, Va., that used the Percheron horses of the Caisson Platoon (part of the Army’s famed 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment) and recovering servicemen from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “An occupational therapist took statistics from the riders, and we were able to prove several things,” says Beckman. “Core strength and balance improved, riders enjoyed being out of the hospital and active on a military base, and there was a bonding between the riders and the active-duty Caisson soldiers who were the leaders and side walkers [volunteers who walk alongside the horses as safety spotters].” In 2007, after the Caisson Platoon earned a good deal of publicity, “PATH’s board of directors chose to establish a task force for a new initiative called Horses for Heroes,” says Beckman. (To avoid conflict with an unrelated organization called Horses 4 Heroes, it was re-dubbed PATH International Equine Services for Heroes.) Beckman, now a PATH-certified, master-level riding instructor, is still affiliated with the Caisson Platoon.
The work done at Caisson was not the only time equine-assisted therapy made headlines. In 2009, Rupert Isaacson’s book Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing, chronicled a family’s journey to the Mongolian steppes, where their autistic son had an extraordinary reaction to horses. That same year, Jaycee Dugard, the California woman held captive for 18 years, shed a veritable klieg light on the power of horses to heal when she told People magazine that equine therapy was helping her overcome the trauma of her abduction. Most recently, Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, spoke openly that riding her dressage horse Rafalca helped with the potentially crippling effects of her multiple sclerosis. “That brought a lot of attention,” says Marks. “It started out negative—comedians really glommed onto it—but it has opened some doors. We spent a lot of time trying to re-educate those late-night cable guys that, guess what? There’s science behind what she’s saying.”
While physical progress is often measurable—greater muscle strength, better balance—the psychotherapeutic benefits of equine therapy for the military are harder to claim. Much has been written, but few, if any, clinical studies have been conducted. “There are informal studies—program evaluations would be a more appropriate term—that are very positive,” says Lynn Thomas, executive director of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which developed the model used by therapists practicing equine-assisted therapy. “But there isn’t any formal research.”
What is out there, though, is impressive. Thomas points to a study recently done in Texas with veterans and their spouses. After only six sessions, couples reported up to 60 percent improvement in their relationship. The study looked at areas such as physical and verbal abuse, financial disputes and parenting choices.
Despite the lack of clinical evidence, the use of equine-assisted therapy for the military is proliferating. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, more VA hospitals around the country are prescribing equine-assisted therapy than ever before. “We stand by [its] benefits for our veteran patient population,” says Larry Long, the VA’s director of recreation therapy service. “When we started this program [at the Caisson Platoon], we only had a handful of VA medical centers participating. Now we have more than 30.”
The most convincing data may be found in the field. It’s Tuesday night at CKRH, and Chewey, a big Percheron with a big personality, and Dusty, a flaxen-maned Haflinger, are being tacked up. Their riders are ready for action, but this time, there is no gunfire or shelling. Ron, a Vietnam veteran, has been coming to CKRH for a few months, and tonight marks his third ride. “I wouldn’t trade this place for anything,” he says, cinching a girth. “It’s too good to be true. Instead of sitting around and feeling sorry, it got me out.” A former Marine, Ron has suffered with PTSD (“I still have terrible nightmares,” he says) and physical injuries (he’s had five operations) for 40 years. When asked what the program has done for him, he pauses, then says, “I can actually talk without crying now.”
Next to him, Jordan is busy keeping himself and Chewey focused. A former Army E4 specialist who spent nearly 13 months in Iraq, Jordan suffered a traumatic head injury as well as injuries to his shoulder and back. He also has PTSD. The program, he says, “gives me something to look forward to every week.” For him, bonding with the horses has been significant. “Surrendering yourself to the big monster you’re climbing on—you have to trust he isn’t going to go wild on you,” he says. “Building that bond—it’s not in my normal stress range, so when I started, I had to put myself out there. It’s helped me that way.”
So what is it about the horse and horse therapy that is so conducive to healing? For one, it’s tactile. “A lot of people when they’re in talk therapy or a lecture have a tendency to check out,” says Spittler. “This is very hands-on, and that’s key.” She adds that horses are intuitive beings that will mirror feelings, especially negative ones. “People don’t realize how angry or anxious they are. They [may have] felt anxious for so long [that] this is their norm. When they see the horse respond, that’s a chance to process, to say, ‘Why is that horse this way?’ ”
And let’s not forget: they’re really big. “When you’re around a horse, you focus; you’re in the moment,” says AFTEC’s Martin. “I think that’s something that’s hard for folks with PTSD—to be in the moment. Instead, they worry about what’s going to happen or what has happened.”
Some professionals point to the sensory effect of a horse’s rhythmic movements, while others go so far as to say a horse is just a little bit magical. The VA’s Long recalls meeting one disabled vet in the Caisson Platoon program who had a seemingly charmed transformation. Suffering from depression, “she didn’t say much at all, and that included very little conversation with family,” says Long. But after participating in the program for a few weeks, “she decided to go to school and she wanted to become a veterinarian,” adds Long. “The horses had made a difference in the way she saw things.”
“Hope,” wrote poet Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” For American military personnel recovering from the dreadfulness of combat, hope also may be something with a burnished hide and a soulful eye, a creature with the power of a tank but not the menace. “I love riding,” says Ron, patting Dusty’s smooth neck. “Here, I have peace.”
Kentucky’s Equine Therapeutic Programs
The PATH International Equine Services for Heroes programs in Kentucky operate on donations, grants, private funding and some small fees if the rider has the means. If you are interested in making a donation or in sponsoring a “ridership,” please contact the individual organizations.
Central Kentucky Riding for Hope (CKRH)
A Premier Accredited PATH Center located at the Kentucky Horse Park, CKRH is situated on 24 acres and offers a full range of equine-assisted activities for people with disabilities or diverse needs, as well as the Horses for Heroes program. Contact: Denise Spittler, program director, (859) 231-7066 or visit ckrh.org
Appalachian Foothills Therapeutic Equestrian Center (AFTEC)
Run by Cheryl and Mark Martin, AFTEC has its home base in McKee, but the equine-assisted activities take place at Jacks Creek Riding Stable in Richmond, a facility donated for use by owner Bob Heyer. It works in partnership with the Bluegrass Army Depot and in cooperation with Eastern Kentucky University’s Veterans Club. Contact: Cheryl Martin, (606) 965-2158 or check out aftec.us.
Kentucky Equine Abilities Center
Also a PATH Media Center, the Kentucky Equine Abilities Center has been operating since 2007 in Madisonville. For information about its program for vets, contact Carrie McColl, (270) 621-0101, or visit kentuckyhorsetherapy.org.
Other Equine Programs
According to PATH, 11 additional facilities in the state offer therapeutic riding or equine-assisted activities, though not programs for the military. To find a center in your area, visit the PATH website at pathintl.org and use the convenient “Find a Center” search option.