Therapeutic horseback riding helps battle PTSD

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brigitte N. Brantley-Sisk
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
J.B. Barnett was a high school athlete who could have had a bright future in football. Capt. Mike Lawlor was a military personnelist assigned to convoy duties in Afghanistan.

Although the two seem different, they both now have something in common. After J.B. suffered brain damage and subsequent post-traumatic stress from a football injury, he attempted suicide, thinking it was the only way out. As for the captain, after returning from a deployment where he often saw intense combat situations, he began to notice signs of post-traumatic stress in himself.

Both men are now active participants in a local therapeutic horseback riding program, an activity which has been proven to help relieve symptoms of brain trauma in many people, including combat veterans.

"I just recently started going to the Hopes and Dreams Riding Facility," said Captain Lawlor, the 23rd Force Support Squadron military personnel section chief. "However, I can already tell that it will be helpful because of the more peaceful, relaxed environment."

The riding facility is located in Quitman, Ga., and provides more than just horseback riding for veterans. The owner, Mike Randall, offers other activities including hunting, fishing, camping and canoeing, free of charge to military members and their families.

"When they are in a more relaxed environment like this, they find it easier to just relax and focus on something other than what caused the (post traumatic stress disorder)," said Mr. Randall. "Later on, most come to feel comfortable here and are able to open up and discuss whatever may have caused the PTSD."

It was his own military service and family that helped inspire him to begin Hopes and Dreams.

"Part of what drives me to help this generation of veterans is seeing how those who served in the Vietnam War are doing now," Mr. Randall said . "Many Vietnam veterans did not get assistance and so many are now homeless or jobless.

"I want for the heroes who are serving now to have better opportunities and a better chance at recovering," he said. "Not getting help can lead to bad situations, including alcohol and drugs."

His decision to help the current veterans came when three of his sons were serving in Iraq at once and two returned with PTSD.

"When one of my sons returned, Veterans Affairs (doctors) put him on pills and he just slept all the time," Mr. Randall said. "Since he's been around horses and has begun caring for them, he's changed a lot and has even started going to college again."

However, not everyone is lucky enough to have someone like Mr. Randall to help point out the signs.

"It's actually quite often that people may not realize they have PTSD or even just post-traumatic stress," said Capt. Kellie Hyde, a 23rd Medical Group mental health element leader. "There is a wide variety of symptoms and the way they are clustered means people can have completely different sets of symptoms but still have the disorder."

The method used by the military to treat PTSD is different, but has also been proved an extremely effective way of healing servicemembers. The highest rates of PTSD are seen in individuals from units with a high operations tempo.

"The way we deal with it is through prolonged exposure, which typically takes place over 12 sessions lasting approximately 90 minutes each," Captain Hyde said. "Through this method, the person will just close their eyes and recall the event repeatedly.

"In addition to this, we're one of a few bases lucky enough to have a virtual reality system used in conjunction with the counselor," she added. "With the system, individuals can recall their experience more realistically and hopefully come to see the event from a different perspective."

Another medical health professional agrees with the importance of getting help when symptoms of post-traumatic stress appear.

"Acknowledging you have any variety of post-traumatic stress and getting help is extremely important," said Maj. Laurie Abney, 23rd MDG education and training flight commander. "Not realizing it can affect your work and home life."

Major Abney volunteers nearly every weekend at the Hopes and Dreams Riding Facility and serves as vice chairman of the board there.

She said she sees people make positive strides through the riding program.

"It's just amazing how these horses are able to make a difference and impact so many lives," she said. "Coming to an isolated location like this allows them to clear their mind and forget about everything else. I've also seen it help families reconnect and help people get their lives back on track."

The facility is scheduled to have wheelchair ramps installed within a couple of weeks and the staff is also planning an equine paralympics. The facility is also serving individuals with general brain damage and cerebral palsy.