| HORSES FOR HEROES
by Ingrid Edisen
In Georgetown, Texas,
they're transforming injured vets by therapeutic horseback riding at
the Ride On Center for Kids (R.O.C.K.) facility that was originally
devised, as a setting to help special needs children. Now the
operation has branched out and uses its horses and staff for other
programs as well. The Horses for Heroes program grew from a need
to assist soldiers who suffered physical or emotional damage due to
injuries from seeing action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Originally,
a pilot study was done in 2005 designed to help soldiers from the Brook
Army Medical Center. Now, there are similar programs ongoing in
the U.S. today.
The goal of Herses for Heroes is to
improve the lives of service men and women who have suffered an injury
in the line of duty, helping them to adjust physically and emotionally
to their post war lives.
Soldiers are referred to R.O.C.K. by a
physician referral, with any injury including but not limited to: Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI),
amputation, burns or neurological impairment. The current or former
military personnel must also be evaluated prior to participation by a
R.O.C.K. physical therapist to assure that the equine assisted therapy
will be beneficial to their particular injury.
Volunteers for Horses for Heroes are
also veterans who have served in other wars. Many are Vietnam
Veterans and there is also a veteran of World War II and the Korean
War. Volunteers help as side walkers and horse handlers and they are
invaluable for listening and socializing with the younger men and women
who have just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan.
(occupational, physical, speech, etc.) and NAHRA certified instructors
are also employed in the program. NAHRA (North American Riding
for the Handicap Association) accredits R.O.C.K. and maintains
standards and training for folks working in this area of horseback
Under the tutelage of founder Nancy
O'Meara Krenek, R.O.C.K.'s physical plant has grown to now offer a
large spacious covered arena and its horses live in spacious airy
stalls when they aren't on duty giving lessons to their human
charges. The horse staff is usually used for two to three lessons
a day. These are patient, working animals--some donated, some
purchased. At any given time, there are approximately twenty
horses on the grounds. R.O.C.K. has also built the Heroes Trail on a
one-acre pasture by the arena. The Heroes Trail was built to
honor all veterans as a living memorial to their heroic service in the
military. The trail is designed to provide therapeutic riding
opportunities outside with some gentle slopes, turns, and other trail
situations that provide therapeutic opportunities for riders.
Most of the riding clients are finding their balance and confidence
again. Horses for Heroes and R.O.C.K.'s other programs all
emphasize safety first, of course. The focus is on improvement
but there is no pressure put on the clients--just encouragement and
Scott Sjule, a veteran and long time
soldier himself with the First Horse Cavalry Detachment from Ft. Hood,
helped with the pilot study and is still instrumental to the program
today. He deals with the Warriors in Transition group from Ft.
Hood. As in all good therapy, he noted, empowerment and
regaining independence are positives gleaned from the program. Scott
spent 21 years in the Army and retired in '06. He finds that his
current involvement in the Heroes program is his way of giving
back. Military personnel have almost a culture of their own, he
explained. "The part of the population involved in military life
is approximately one percent."
What it Does
Usually, Joan Schroeder, R.O.C.K.
instructor, said there are anywhere from three to five participants in
"It is an interesting group of folks,"
Technically, R.O.C.K. has room for
a maximum of six in the indoor and six more veterans on the outdoor
trail. Veterans and their teams work together in a group
lesson. Sessions last usually 1.5 to 2 hours. For now, she
said, it is open enrollment. It runs the gamut, she
explained--some fellows are up to cantering whereas others must do
walking drills due to back injuries. The movement of the
horse simulates a human walking so for an amputee, the horse
facilitates muscle memory for walking.
Many veterans suffer from Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD), Joan explained. Often this involves them
exhibiting a strong aversion to change of any sort.
At first, Heidi Derning, one of the
NAHRA instructors who works with the veterans, said sometimes the
soldiers start with hippotherapy and then move into therapeutic riding.
Scott explained that with veterans,
theyare seeking to regain what they had lost due to war trauma. This
contrasts to a special needs child or adult client whose brain may have
never had a chance to formulate some skills and mind-body connections
in the first place, he said. So far, the program has helped two
soldiers who suffered from strokes. Scott described how one
soldier had largely lost the use of his right side. He rode for
months in the program and one day in a simulated trail riding exercise
during which the client was mounted in an eight-foot "box" (a marked
out area in the arena sand) and told to turn his horse, suddenly, the
man's right arm remembered how to move and the client easily turned his
horse. Needless to say, such a breakthrough was exciting. Another
war injury and stroke sufferer, Mike Nadeau who often rides the mount
Topper and headlines in various rodeo parades for R.O.C.K. and the
Heroes program, has recovered more mastery in his speech and physical
strength. The type of therapy involved with horseback riding combines
so many aspects all at once that it makes it virtually an organic way
to help the veterans recover.
The veterans who volunteer as side
walkers and horse handlers to help with the Heroes program give
specifically tailored empathy and guidance.
At R.O.C.K. safety is paramount so every
rider sports a helmet at all times. There is no need for rushing
here. The focus is on recovery, not fast-forwarding.
"It's an open-ended time frame,"
Stephanie stated. With some soldiers participating each week for 45
weeks of the year.
The Pipeline and Beyond
Stephanie observed that injured vets
come to them often by way of counselors or doctors who know about the
Heroes program. Currently there is a Quality of Life study being
conducted by Dr. Beth Lanning of the Social Work Department of Baylor
University using the Heroes participants. "We collect the data
for her," Stephanie explained, “then she analyzes it for a study that
has shown positive improvements to date.”
"Soldiers with PTSD often don't
trust," Scott said. "They have to learn how to love their wives
and kids again. This program is an outreach. The horses
give the opportunity."
To find out more about R.O.C.K. and the
Horses for Heroes call (512) 930-7625; or visit their website at www.rockride.org. Visitors
are welcome by appointment.