At R.O.C.K., horses help veterans and service members reconnect to civilian life
Sara Haines heard the horse before she saw him. Peanut Butter was kicking the walls of his stall, huffing and neighing. When Sara approached the stall, the brown-haired gelding was pacing and kicking with his ears pinned back—he was distressed and letting everyone around know it.
“Oh, boy, I don’t know if I can ride that tonight,” Sara thought.
The thirty-seven-year-old Army veteran had been coming to R.O.C.K. (Ride On Center for Kids) for three weeks to participate in its eight-week program for veterans, one of two equine therapy programs designed to promote “healing of the mind, body, and spirit” for active duty and veteran service members. The program also helps with the stress of adjusting to civilian life.
That night, however, it seemed that Peanut Butter needed Sara more than she needed him. She took a deep breath. “If I could jump out of airplanes as a paratrooper in the Army, I can certainly handle this,” she decided.
From 2001 to 2006, Sara was on active duty as an Army paratrooper and signal officer. Her team shoved heavy transit cases of communication equipment out of airplanes, then jumped out after them. Once they hit the ground, the soldiers quickly established Internet and phone services so that the XVIII Airborne Commanders could communicate with aircraft and with troops on the ground.
In 2005, she was hand-selected to deploy with the XVIII Airborne Corps Command Group to Iraq, where she assisted in the establishment of the Iraqi Army’s headquarters at Camp Victory, Baghdad.
Although being airborne and jumping out of airplanes was “fun and amazing,” it took a toll on Sara’s body. Many paratroopers experience back, hip, knee, and ankle injuries from the impact during jumps and landings. Using equine therapy to help with her pain appealed to Sara, who rode and showed horses as a child. When she moved to Round Rock, an acquaintance mentioned R.O.C.K., so she tried it and was hooked after the first session.
“The movement simulates normal walking, so it does phenomenal things for your body,” says Nancy Krenek, the founder and director of R.O.C.K. Veterans start by walking their horses, but eventually they learn to ride and even do tricks on the horses, such as leading the horse to kick plastic balls around the ring. These motions help develop fine-motor skills and strengthen muscles in a fun, adventurous setting.
“I spent years trying numerous treatment modalities—physical therapy, aqua therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, therapeutic and fascia massage, and many others,” Sara says. “Equine therapy provided almost instantaneous physical relief.”
Equine therapy also helped Sara cope with the stress that she, like many veterans, faced when transitioning to civilian life. Driving through bad traffic or hearing sudden loud noises like thunder can trigger the survival instincts soldiers develop in the military. “When you go through very caustic experiences,” Sara explains, “you don’t ever really forget them. You survived. Whatever you had to do at that time to keep yourself safe and get home, whether it was heightened awareness or the anxiety that kept you awake, those things are still with you.”
Equine therapy at R.O.C.K., helps veterans to develop coping strategies by becoming more self-aware. “You have to center yourself to the present to be on a horse, meaning you check your anxiety and stress at the door,” Sara says. “For that hour, you can sit on a horse and just process the present instead of having to reconcile the current environment and military memories twenty-four/seven. Riding a horse completely takes you out of whatever mental funk you were in and brings you to be present,” Sara explains. “We don’t always realize if we’re projecting anxiety or frustration. You might have a few friends who would be nice enough to tell you that. . . . But a horse will let you know.”
For example, Peanut Butter helped Sara become more self-aware by “mirroring” her behavior. If Sara was agitated or behaved in a way that Peanut Butter perceived as agitated, he pinned his ears back and stomped his feet, then stood squarely on four feet, very alert. If Sara was relaxed, his ears relaxed, and he shifted his weight to relax one of his feet. “The horse doesn’t judge you if you react emotionally. A horse just mirrors how you are feeling,” she says. That mirroring allows her to take control of her emotional state. Being self-aware helps Sara manage stress better, making her calmer.
The staff at R.O.C.K. started working with veterans during a pilot program in 2005 in partnership with Sgt. Scott Sjule at Fort Hood and Brooke Army Medical Center. The staff, says Heidi Derning, a PATH International certified instructor and the program’s coordinator, has felt it to be an honor to be involved in working with many veterans over the years as they readjust to civilian life, heal, and move forward with their lives. One way they see the veterans move forward is simply through connection. “They connect with the horse,” Heidi says, “and the trust that they build with the horse helps them to connect with people.” Heidi, also an equine specialist in mental health and learning at R.O.C.K., explains that connecting with horses promotes self-discovery, which in turn encourages improved relationships and growth in many areas. “Nancy Krenek reminds us all the time that our veterans have taught us that partnering with horses helps you to be the ‘CEO of your own life,’” Heidi says.
The veterans, volunteers, and staff in the Tuesday night program also sit down together for fellowship dinners that provide additional space for connection. Most of the volunteers for this program are veterans themselves and are devoted to the program. Many of the veterans who come to R.O.C.K. for services stay involved through advanced classes or as volunteers in the veterans’ or children’s classes at R.O.C.K. “Veterans are some of the most servant-hearted people you will meet,” Heidi says. “It’s so touching to see them grow as they work with their horses and then turn around and help others do the same.”
And in Sara’s case, others also meant Peanut Butter. Although it was only Sara’s third class, she already knew what to do to calm the disgruntled horse down that night: Give him a mirror. She led him out of his stall and calmly hooked his halter into the cross-ties in order to keep his head still. After brushing him down, she led him out to the arena, where she walked and trotted him in circles. Then she and her instructor did some simple exercises with him. An hour and a half later, Sara led a peaceful Peanut Butter to a circle to join the other participants and, while Sara listened to Heidi talk, she felt Peanut Butter nestle his head against her side. “That was just one of the times it felt like I could step back and use what I learned in order to help him,” Sara says. “It’s an amazing symbiotic experience.”
Upcoming ROCK On Veterans activities and opportunities
Monday, November 2nd: Rider Cup Classic Golf Tournament at Berry Creek Country Club in Georgetown. All proceeds fund veterans’ programs at R.O.C.K. Tuesday, November 10th, 6–8 P.M.: ROCK On Veterans Drill Team Presentation & Open House, 2050 Rockride Lane, Georgetown.
Tuesday, November 17th: New eight-week session of Therapeutic Horsemanship classes for veterans starts. This program serves men and women veterans of all generations. Call R.O.C.K. or visit website to register.
R.O.C.K. started a new program for women veterans in July. This program is funded by the Texas Veterans Commission and involves four 8-week Monday night sessions in 2015–2016. Call R.O.C.K. or visit website to register.
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