September 2009

HORSES FOR HEROES
Pete Lichau of Rose Gate Farm, Argyle, Texas riding A Wizards Spell Sir Winston.
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.

Professional therapists (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 therapy. 

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 support. 

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 the arena.
"It is an interesting group of folks," she said.

 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.
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