Equine Therapy — Horses Help Vets to Heal

Circa 2012

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 stone’s 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 might’ve 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, she’s caring for herself—soothing 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.

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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 horse’s 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, I’ve learned a great deal about horses and how they’ve 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 Army’s 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 horse’s movements and strength, while being shored up by the encouragement of fellow soldiers, eased McKinnon out of her shell.

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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 horse.

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 she’s studying to become either a veterinary technician or a veterinarian, which she’s wanted to do since childhood.

Horses change lives, and often in subtle ways. It’s not just the riding lessons that buoy veterans. Grooming the animals soothe veterans and give them a sense of purpose. There’s also something special about hanging out with horses––the positive energy they emit–– that’s hard to describe, whether you’re 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 horse’s gait closely resembles a human’s, and staying astride the animal enhances the rider’s core strength and trunk stability.

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, it’s often fellow soldiers or vets who work with wounded veterans during sessions, so there is a shared experience and understanding.

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A huge benefit of programs like these across the nation is that they are active and often take place outdoors—instead of inside a formal medical office— offering veterans the opportunity to unwind in a peaceful, relaxing environment.

One of the biggest barriers to helping veterans with disabilities is that many don’t know these programs exist and are accessible—often at no charge—to them. In some areas, veterans’ hospitals and programs even provide transportation to and from the stables.

It’s heartening to see anyone—whether they’ve lost a limb in combat or have an invisible wound—begin 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, under-publicized stories that I’m developing TV Specials for PBS, showcasing how horses help veterans with disabilities and children with disabilities, as well.

If you’ve ever spent time around horses, you know that they have an affect on people that’s hard to quantify or explain. If you haven’t—or if you’d like to rekindle that feeling—consider volunteering at an equine-assisted therapy program near you.

by Darley Newman

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