On the historic
grounds of US Army post Fort Myer in Arlington, VA, Caisson Platoon
Equine-Assisted Programs bring veterans and horses together for an unusual
brand of therapy. The setting is rich in iconic imagery: Arlington National
Cemetery is on one side, the Pentagon is just up the street, and the
White House is a stones throw across the Potomac River.
Venturing into the Caisson stables, I met a fit, friendly rider named
Samantha Nerove who was casually brushing a white Percheron draft horse
named Mickey. Nerove mightve been any other rider preparing for
a lesson, but she is a US Army lieutenant colonel and former paratrooper
who was injured and Medivac'd out of Iraq during Desert Storm. In caring
for the animal, shes caring for herselfsoothing invisible
war wounds with equine therapy.
Although her condition went undiagnosed for two decades, Nerove believes
she acquired post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with injuries
to her neck and back in 1990 during her tour of duty. As I watched her
ride around the arena, sitting upright to keep her posture in line with
her horse, she was focused and enthusiastic.
Nerove takes lessons from Mary Jo Beckman, herself a retired US Navy
Commander and co-founder of the Caisson Program. During their sessions,
Nerove has experienced PTSD flashbacks to the mortars, rockets and bodies
she witnessed in combat. Once a fire alarm went off at the same time
that a helicopter passed overhead, triggering terrifying sensations
that reminded the veteran of being in the middle of war. But her horses
unwavering calmness brought her back to the present moment, allowing
the vet to continue her lesson, remain composed and feel safe.
I met Nerove while researching a TV Special for Equitrekking, an Emmy
Award-winning PBS TV series that I created. As host, I travel the world
riding horses with local people. My adventures have landed me among
the Bedouin in Jordan, gauchos in Uruguay, bush healers in Belize and
outdoorsmen in Alaska.
Along the way, Ive learned a great deal about horses and how theyve
assisted humans over millennia. What is equally remarkable is how much
they continue to help, even in our postindustrial, highly technological
society. Though we now use cars instead of carriages, horses have not
lost their power to touch our lives.
On my visits to the stables, which are near my home in Washington, I
met other soldiers and veterans with disabilities, including some with
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and/or lost limbs who have achieved great
success using equine therapy.
Nerove credits her riding sessions with helping her to recognize events
that can lead to a PTSD episode. She works through her trauma, while
moving towards her goals. Unfortunately, many soldiers and veterans
feel reluctant to seek psychological help for fear of being stigmatized.
Nerove urges them not to suffer in silence.
Veteran Natasha McKinnon sought help and has bloomed in the program.
In 2005, at 23 years old, the Ohio native was shipped off to Iraq where
she was charged with driving Humvees and trucks for the Army. She lost
part of her leg when her convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device
(IED) a few months later.
The blast wounded her right calf, while her left leg had to be amputated
below the knee, which landed her at the (now-defunct) Walter Reed Army
Medical Center in Washington, DC. As part of her rehabilitation, McKinnon,
who was awarded a Purple Heart for her military service, became part
of a case study in the Armys pilot program with the Caisson.
When she first arrived, McKinnon was quiet, shy, and reluctant to integrate
with the rest of the group. Her first lesson made her keenly aware of
her physical limitations, and yet melding with the horses movements
and strength, while being shored up by the encouragement of fellow soldiers,
eased McKinnon out of her shell.
In a few lessons, she began to achieve stability on her horse, Minnie,
measurably improving her balance and finding increased confidence in
her ability to use her artificial limb. She began tagging along with
the Caisson veterinarian after lessons to assist him with a wounded
Her progress continues. In 2009, she rode in front of the general public
during a showcase event at the Washington (DC) International Horse Show,
and today shes studying to become either a veterinary technician
or a veterinarian, which shes wanted to do since childhood.
Horses change lives, and often in subtle ways. Its not just the
riding lessons that buoy veterans. Grooming the animals soothe veterans
and give them a sense of purpose. Theres also something special
about hanging out with horsesthe positive energy they emit
thats hard to describe, whether youre riding them or being
drawn along by them in an adaptive carriage.
One man with TBI practiced for his automotive driving test by driving
a horse-drawn carriage around the base. The distractions he faced on
the open road could be simulated in a less threatening environment,
and driving the carriage afforded him a level of confidence he could
not achieve by practicing in a conventional car.
Many individuals with visible and invisible disabilities benefit from
their work with horses: Confidence is rebuilt, social and communications
skills developed, patience learned and anxiety managed. Some people
grow in physical strength from equine therapy, targeting specific muscle
groups that help them relearn to walk or use prostheses. Other benefits
include cardiovascular conditioning and improved range of motion and
balance. The horses gait closely resembles a humans, and
staying astride the animal enhances the riders core strength and
Veterans with PTSD, in particular, have been shown to make great progress,
as they may see a bit of their own temperament reflected in these hypervigilant
prey animals, which are extremely sensitive to the sights, sounds and
smells in the world around them.
Veterans benefit from equine-assisted activities physically, cognitively
and emotionally, said Beckman. For an individual without
legs, for example, the power of riding a large horse can be empowering,
provide freedom and boost esteem.
In the process, equine-assisted therapy helps people forge stronger
bonds with other human beings, because riders are not only helped by
horses, but also by people. Within the Caisson program, its often
fellow soldiers or vets who work with wounded veterans during sessions,
so there is a shared experience and understanding.
A huge benefit of programs like these across the nation is that they
are active and often take place outdoorsinstead of inside a formal
medical officeoffering veterans the opportunity to unwind in a
peaceful, relaxing environment.
One of the biggest barriers to helping veterans with disabilities is
that many dont know these programs exist and are accessibleoften
at no chargeto them. In some areas, veterans hospitals and
programs even provide transportation to and from the stables.
Its heartening to see anyonewhether theyve lost a
limb in combat or have an invisible woundbegin to heal with the
help of horses. The servicemen and women that I met in these programs
are an inspiration. It is because of their hopeful, underpublicized
stories that Im developing TV Specials for PBS, showcasing how
horses help veterans with disabilities and children with disabilities,
If youve ever spent time around horses, you know that they have
an affect on people thats hard to quantify or explain. If you
haventor if youd like to rekindle that feelingconsider
volunteering at an equine-assisted therapy program near you.
Equitrekking PBS Caisson
by Darley Newman
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