By Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Haynes, Air Force News Service
/ Published May 30, 2012
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The relationship between man and his horse is a storied one. Winston Churchill once said, "There's something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." The 19th century novelist Robert Smith Surtees said, "There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse." And the 20th century American novelist John Steinbeck said, "A man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot."
For hundreds of years, people have recognized the healing qualities of horses. Here, on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy, equine specialists have taken those healing qualities to a whole new level with the equine assisted learning experience.
As part of the Warrior Wellness Program, service members can participate in the program as a way to cope with their mental and physical injuries, especially those that are combat related. Although the bulk of the guests are Soldiers from the southern Colorado area, the program is open to service members from all branches.
The stables are tucked away in a corner of the base that used to be a family housing area. Away from the space-themed structures on the main base, modern-day cowboys, clad in Stetsons and spurs, can be seen tending to the animals. And then there's Boris; the resident mule who thinks he's more akin to the family dog than a farm animal.
"Once you cross the rock bridge, it's like a different world," said Robert Templin, an animal caretaker and equine specialist. "It's like taking a step back in time. There's the Rocky Mountains right there and the river - it's a goose bump giver."
The staff members at the equestrian center use their old-fashioned "cures" to help treat Soldiers who are dealing with an issue that plagues many service members who are returning from combat in today's conflicts.
"I can tell you firsthand, these people save lives," said an Airman who participated in the program and asked to remain anonymous. " I know that sounds melodramatic, but make no mistake, Mr. Barrett and his team save Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen from taking their own lives, and they allow military families an amazing venue to start healing together -- no doubt, no drama, no embellishment."
Mr. Barrett is Billy Jack Barrett, who has managed this working ranch for more than 30 years.
"We do on-the-ground exercises and some exercises on horseback and (Soldiers) work with a pair of trained equine specialists who help devise the exercises and work with them on the ground," said Jeannie Springer, an accounting clerk and equine specialist. "We ask very open ended questions based on our observations and things that we see."
Although each member of the equestrian center staff is certified through the O.K. Corral series, that was developed by the founder of equine-assisted therapy, the team is in the process of acquiring two licensed clinical therapists to help guests deal with difficult emotional and physical issues.
"Once we started working with Soldiers, we quickly found that (EAL) brings some things to the surface that reminded them of their Iraq or Afghanistan experience; it's a break-through moment."
For most guests, the highlight of the program is the horseback ride. Typically the ride is the culminating event for the participants in the program, but depending on the equine specialists' recommendations, it can be earlier in the treatment plan. The ride gives the Soldiers a chance to connect with the horse in the great wide open.
"During a particularly rough therapy session, Mr. Templin and Ms. Jeanne Springer just stopped and gave me a hug," the Airman said. "No judgment, not allowing me to wallow in survivor's guilt, not letting me try and 'tough it out' alone. (In my prior career field,) I was always placing my patients' and my troops' welfare before my own. In that moment I was allowed to let go and have a moment of solace and care from two amazing human beings."
When the equine specialists take Soldiers out for their ride, they refer to it as "checking fence." When the program first began, there was no funding available to offer rides to all the guests. The ranch manager, who is responsible for making sure there are no holes in the fences enclosing the tens of thousands of acres of pasture the Academy owns, would take Soldiers out with him to "check the fences."
"There was one Soldier who we took out on a ride during his fourth session, and it was an eye opener for us," Springer said. "He had been in the Marine Corps and a Navy medic and then a sniper. Then he went to (Officer Training School) and became an Air Force officer.
"He saw a lot," she said. "The ride was hard for him because there were a lot of places that were natural ambush places. He said, 'My rational mind keeps reminding me that I'm safe, but all according to all my instincts, this is a bad spot and the next spot is a bad spot.' We shed a lot of tears together. We had not anticipated that, but it was really valuable and he wanted to bring his family back to do that. He really felt good that he did it."
The EAL doesn't just consist of horseback riding. Soldiers help care for the horses and use them as tools for some of their lessons. Guests may be asked to identify which horse's behavior in the herd they can relate with the most and why. Often, the horse becomes a metaphor for the Soldier.
Even though a horse may weigh well over 1,200 pounds, it is still an animal of prey. Horses live in a constant state of hyperawareness, something that many Soldiers who live with PTSD can identify with.
"We (get Soldiers to see) this huge animal and realize it's a prey animal and it lives with a constant sense of hyper alertness, but they're calm," Springer said. "They manage their day, they manage their life and (there is a way for them to) figure out how to do that too."
Sgt. Dale Chick, a Bradley mechanic who is now assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit's Bravo Company at Fort Carson, Colo., has been taking advantage of EAL as part of his recovery from various injuries he incurred, including PTSD and a TBI, on multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, his short-term memory was affected and he has difficulty dealing with large groups of people.
"You go through a lot of stuff over there that most people couldn't fathom seeing let alone experience," Chick said. "Then you come home, and you really don't want to talk about it but people keep asking you what was it like or did you kill anybody. You have no idea what it's like to take another person's life. It will haunt you."
Although he is going through the healing process, Chick admits he's not fully recovered but EAL has helped him on the journey to finding his "new normal."
"When I got home I didn't feel at home" Chick said. "I felt like a stranger in my own house. I didn't feel like I knew my kids or my wife. I avoided going places like to the (Post Exchange) or crowded places like that. I can't walk into a Wal-Mart at 5 p.m. I can't do it - there are too many people.
"I hate to admit it, but there are some days that I just feel like running my car off a bridge and praying I don't wake up from a crash," he said. "And I think a lot of Soldiers feel the same way, they just don't verbalize it. That's why I think equine therapy is so good because it takes your mind off of that stuff."
Andy Popejoy, a life-long wrangler and equine specialist, said he has seen firsthand the benefits that EAL has had on the Soldiers who have come through the program.
"Once we get them on horseback, it's like they're free again," he said. "It's kind of like reading the Bible sometimes when you're looking for that peace and tranquility - and horses do that. They do it for me, and they have all my life. No matter how bad things get, I can either pick up my Bible or I can get on my horse."
As the Soldiers progress through the program, the goal is to give them the tools to help integrate back into their families and their lives while coping with their injuries. A Soldier may never completely recover from an injury like PTSD, but he can always continue to heal. Equine assisted learning and the tools it provides is one way Soldiers can continue that healing process.
"It helps open doors that were once closed," Chick said. "A lot of Soldiers, like me, close themselves off from the world, and they have a really hard time interacting with the general public because of what they've been through. For me, equine therapy is just wonderful, I love it."
As doctors and researchers continue to learn more about PTSD and TBI, more therapies will become available to treat service members. But at the equestrian center here, there will always be fences to be checked for the Soldiers who need them.