Soldiers and veterans transitioning out of combat mode heal with the help of horses.
Vincent Greco hadn’t relaxed in more than 40 years.
He’s suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder  for the majority of his life, since serving in the Vietnam War from 1967-1968. After his tour Greco returned to Charleston, S.C., and spent years going through different therapies.
But nothing really worked, until the day this spring when Greco finally found an outlet for four decades of stress: Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding Inc.’s Horses For Heroes program in Johns Island.
“It’s been the best therapy for me,” he said. “Right off the bat, I had no problems with the horses. It relaxes me. Without me realizing I have a guard around me 24/7, the horses help me let it down. When I’m working with the horse it’s a different story because I’m not only watching myself, I’m watching the horse.”
Now he can’t imagine life without horses. Though Greco, 64, had to take a few weeks off for knee replacement surgery, he’s eager to get back to the barn as soon as possible, and he volunteers in the regular therapeutic riding classes as well.
“I hope I can keep going back for a long time,” he said. “I’m going to get a special doctor’s note so I can go again right after the surgery.”
Filling The Void
Greco is just one of many veterans positively affected by horses after returning from serving their country, thanks to a relatively new program for veterans and active-duty injured servicemen and women.
The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association launched Horses For Heroes in April of 2007, thanks largely to the work of Mary Jo Beckman and Larry Pence. As retired members of the military, they saw a void in the NARHA’s line-up of therapeutic riding courses. Though some centers were offering therapeutic riding and hippotherapy for local veterans, there wasn’t yet a formal program for it.
“We all really saw the need and wanted to help,” said NARHA Communities Coordinator Nicole Pepper. “Most people think it’s just veterans recently returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, but often it’s older veterans from Vietnam needing help, too.”
Five years later, there are now around 90 NARHA-accredited Horses For Heroes programs, and each one is unique. Some focus mainly on groundwork with the horses, while others are more riding-based, though all do some combination of those two things. The programs run anywhere from a single session up to 12 consecutive.
Breeana Bornhorst, director at the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Center in Clifton, Va., started thinking about offering instruction for veterans and active duty military recovering from injuries in 2006, shortly before NARHA officially launched Horses For Heroes.
“We put into place some extra training for volunteers,” she said. “We had therapists come in and do a workshop on PTSD. We started looking at the horses we had and what other things we would need to get going. The nice thing was, essentially, we already had the trained and certified instructors in place.”
Now NOVA Therapeutic Riding Center devotes every Wednesday morning to Horses For Heroes, serving between one and eight riders at a time. Most of them come from nearby Ft. Belvoir’s Warrior Transition Unit and are still in active duty, recovering from mental and/or physical trauma and transitioning back into either civilian life or the military.
Bornhorst most commonly sees soldiers with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries most commonly. Their challenges differ, but they enjoy getting away from the base and spending time around the horses. Each rider grooms and tacks up his or her own horse, rides in a group lesson and then helps untack and put the horse away. The soldiers eat lunch together at the barn before heading back to base.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the relationship the riders build with the horses,” Bornhorst said. “They connect with them. The grooming and the tacking up are as important as the riding. It’s amazing the difference you see in them from the beginning of the session to the end. Our farm here is a safe space, and the atmosphere is very calming. We try to give the riders the opportunity to de-stress and connect with the horses and other people.”
Pike’s Peak Therapeutic Riding Center in Elbert, Colo., started its Horses For Heroes sessions in 2008. Director Nancy Beers said most of their participants suffer from PTSD or have traumatic brain injuries, and she’s seen a mixture of veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Pike’s Peak program, most PTSD-inflicted veterans focus on groundwork and relationship-building with the horses for a series of eight sessions. A therapist always accompanies the participants in case a tense situation needs diffusing.
“If a serious crisis arises, the therapist can take the patient aside,” Beers said. “But most of the time we find things go very calmly. At the end of the first day, I see a huge difference. They come in going, ‘Oh, what the hell, here’s another stupid thing they’re making us do.’ They’re just not buying it, and they’re downcast, looking down and not making eye contact with anyone. They do what they’re told because they’re soldiers, but you can tell they think it’s dumb. But once you put a leadline in their hands, or put them in a round pen with the horse, they’re completely changed.
“The biggest thing is making a positive connection again, and you don’t have to risk as much with a horse as with a human,” Beers continued.
A Perfect Match
It might seem contradictory to think that an imposing, 1,000-pound horse—with its strongly ingrained “fight or flight” instinct—would be the best therapist for a person suffering from PTSD. But it’s the similarity between the two that creates such a strong connection.
“We focus a lot on relationship skills, communication skills and what makes horses tick,” said Beers. “Because horses are prey animals, they live in a state of constant vigilance, and so do these guys with PTSD. They’re always waiting for someone to come in the door, or for a box to explode, or for a guy to come with a rifle. To some of us that seems irrational, but there’s a commonality there with the horses; they’re always worrying about a rock that wasn’t there yesterday or a plastic bag blowing around.”
And, Beers explained, seeing another creature dealing with the same fears they feel is comforting for the veterans.
“The veterans start to realize they’re not stupid or wrong,” she said. “They can kind of lighten up on themselves. Horses like safety and routine and predictability—surprise is the last thing they want—and so do the veterans. So they mesh very nicely.”
And the sheer size of the horses makes the participants feel more empowered when they discover they can work around and with them. Carolyn Fota, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, suffers from PTSD and a seizure disorder from a combat injury. She recently rode at NOVA Therapeutic Center for the first time since her injury and plans on going back for more.
“I was a little timid coming out, but I really had a lot of fun,” Fota said. “[The instructors and volunteers] gained my trust early through a lot of good instruction. It made me know that, at the end of the day, I can do this. Katy [Warren, a volunteer] was telling me, ‘You rode a 900-pound horse today, and you were steering her and trotting her.’ It gives me more confidence, because even though I have a few challenges I’m dealing with, if I can ride a 900-pound horse, I can really do anything. It was a really good lesson to learn.”
According to Beers, sometimes a little nervousness isn’t the worst thing, as long as it’s managed correctly by therapists and volunteers. It can help the veterans open up again after spending so much time closed off from others.
“One of my favorite stories was when a man with PTSD came out for his first day,” said Beers. “We have a 17-hand Paint mare, she’s fairly new to our program, and she came running right up to this man. She came screaming up to him and put her face right on his chest. He said, ‘I’m so scared right now.’ But that was the first thing he’d felt in a long time, because they go numb when they have PTSD. He began to form a bond with her. He loved her, and she loved him. He told the therapist that this was the first time he felt a connection with anything and went on to say that he thought the horse saved his life.”
It takes a special equine to do any kind of therapeutic riding work, and the ones who excel in Horses For Heroes classes are no different. They have to be extremely quiet, tolerate a leader and two side walkers if necessary and, specifically for Horses For Heroes, be big enough to handle a full-grown adult.
“One of the things we looked at in terms of preparing our program was making sure we had enough horses who could help with the adults,” said Bornhorst. “Our horses are all really trained well, and we pair up the rider with the horse depending on what we feel comfortable with. Part of that is really knowing your horses so you can really create the best experience for everyone.”
A horse’s innate ability to sense when someone needs help is a less quantifiable, but even more important, trait, according to Kelly Sipos, director at Saddle Up Riding Club in Pinellas Park, Fla.
“Some of the horses, they just know what people need,” Sipos said. “They just listen to these riders instantly. One woman came out and was so afraid to get on, and the horse almost put his head down on her shoulder. It helped her not be so afraid.”