Horses for Heroes: Finding Support on Stable Ground
For hundreds of years, the horse has been recognized as one of nature’s strongest, most noble, and most courageous creatures. Throughout history, horses have carried generals across miles of war zone, led armies into countless battles, and survived with their riders against unbeatable odds. Although modern technology has caused most military branches to cease their need for horses, many war veterans have found much-needed healing by connecting with horses in the barn rather than on the battlefield.
Horses for Heroes, a non-traditional animal-assisted therapy program that involves using horses in equine-assisted activities for wounded warriors, was formed in response to the growing need for therapy for war veterans. The program provides therapeutic benefits to participants who suffer from physical or mental disabilities. Participants in the program are often veterans who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI), both of which can cause numerous physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral effects. Wounded warriors struggle to regain valuable skills that have been lost due to injury on the battlefield and find therapeutic benefit in equestrian-related activities.
The Calvin Center, located in Hampton, GA, facilitates a wounded warrior program, led by Volunteer Program Coordinators Sarah Reams and MaryWill DuDomaine. The Horses for Heroes program mission consists of “military helping military to heal through the use of equine-assisted activities.”The Calvin Center’s volunteer team works closely with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Atlanta to provide much-needed equine-assisted therapy sessions under the supervision of certified therapeutic riding instructors. Active duty military and veteran volunteers serve as horse leaders, side walkers, barn volunteers and program assistants.Participants in the program come from the Atlanta area and are often wounded veterans who suffer from mental and physical disabilities.
Reams and DuDomaine, both certified instructors through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH, Int.), lead the Calvin Center’s program in an effort to teach veterans how to safely ride and interact with horses during a series of both mounted and unmounted activities. The horses in the program are generally solid and stable mounts with easy-going temperaments. One of the participants’ favorite horses, Rollo, is almost 31 years old and appears as if he is always sticking his tongue out, due to his lack of teeth. Besides the general therapeutic benefits that often come from being around the horses, the program also strives to increase the participants’ stability, balance, and muscle tone, and to improve their mobility. In addition, the program offers the opportunity for personal empowerment.
On the surface, one might think that the program’s equestrian activities are the main source of therapy, but program volunteers feel that the relationships formed between the wounded veterans are just as important as the animal bonding that takes place during the 12-session program.
“One of the program’s most important aspects is the veterans’ social time,” states Gretchen Ahrens, Equestrian Director for the Calvin Center. “Our participants make meaningful connections and share their stories; the horses provide the vehicle for that valuable time to happen.”
Although the horses play an integral role in program by providing countless mental and physical therapeutic benefits, it is the humble war veteran volunteers and participants who are the true lifeline of the program. During each session, volunteers of all ages and military branches gather around coffee and cookies to swap stories and offer support before the equestrian activity begins. During the beginning of one session, a veteran volunteer jokingly admitted that the Volunteer Program Coordinator “is my sergeant now.” Many of the veterans who volunteer at the Calvin Center program are from Peachtree City and Fayetteville areas.
Since PTSD and TBI often affect memory, program participants sometimes struggle to physically attend the scheduled sessions. Each 12-session program, conducted twice per year, is open to a maximum of 10 participants per program. Although eager to sign up for the session, volunteers have witnessed participants who are only able to attend one of the 12 sessions due to memory lapses or other mental barriers. One volunteer remembered how a particular veteran would call every week before the session started to be reminded of the directions to the facility. Another veteran participant managed only to come to the last of 12 sessions – a notable milestone for a person suffering from traumatic brain injury.
The Calvin Center’s Horses for Heroes program is free of charge for qualifying veterans. When asked about the free program, Ahrens stated, “We believe in what the veterans have done for us, so the program is our way of giving back.” Donations, grants, and an all-volunteer workforce support the program. Volunteers must be veterans or on active duty.
In addition to the Horses for Heroes program, the Calvin Center regularly hosts a Women’s Wellness group, sent from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The women in the group visit the Calvin Center’s stables once per month to interact with the horses on the ground for therapeutic benefit. The women find comfort in brushing, grooming, and bonding with the horses.
Through the soft nicker of a horse, or the supportive smile of a fellow veteran, our wounded warriors find healing at the stables. Although the horses offer us immeasurable therapeutic benefits, the programs wouldn’t survive without the dedication and support of the Calvin Center’s entire community of heroes.