Horses help heal military heroes


man on the horse

June 19, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The group of veterans made its way slowly into the equestrian center stable at Slippery Rock University. Some were in wheelchairs, others nursing bad knees, hips and backs. Almost as if on cue, the horses nickered, saying "Hello" to the nation's heroes.

Shortly after "meeting" the animals, a World War II veteran saddled up for the main event and signaled a thumbs up as he became, at 92, the oldest rider of Liver, a 30-year-old Haflinger.

SRU is on a mission to provide recreational therapy to veterans and has trotted into a new arena to offer equine-assisted activities to veterans with disabilities. A $52,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has enabled the University to operate its version of Equine Services for Heroes in the University's Storm Harbor Equestrian Center.

The grant expands opportunities to 100 veterans with disabilities to groom, saddle and ride a horse in a safe, supervised center. As part of the PATH International Equine Services for Heroes, the program caters to men and women veterans of any age who suffer a physical or emotional disability.

"I really did not believe equine-therapy was valuable until I actually saw for myself the veterans interacting with horses," said Kelsey Surbey, a recreational therapy major from Canton, Ohio, who volunteers at the center. "This experience was transforming. I gained a different perception of veterans with mental health impairments, and I have a changed perspective on the benefits of horse and human interaction."

A growing number of recreational therapists support using horses in treatment, believing the neuromuscular stimulation of horseback riding strengthens limbs and muscles and promotes balance. SRU goes further; asserting that emotional bonding with horses helps veterans gain improvement with post-traumatic stress disorder and self-efficacy for community reintegration.

"Preliminary results of the program evaluation suggest that veterans involved-to-date improved self-efficacy and confidence and decreased stress," said Betsy Kemeny, SRU assistant professor of recreational therapy, who evaluates the Equine Services for Heroes program. "Cognitive benefits include improvements in clarity of thought and expression of long-term memories. Other veterans have reported physical benefits such as improvements in lower extremity flexibility and posture. One veteran with Parkinson's disease reported a decrease in muscle stiffness after riding only three times. Recreational therapy students report improvement in communication and group dynamic skills."

Kemeny's database search indicated that approximately 100,000 veterans live in the region; 21,000 need disability compensation.

"This trend is likely to escalate in coming years since the likelihood of service-connected veterans seeking VA health care generally increases with the veteran's disability severity and age," she said.

The program, which supports SRU's Military Friendly designation, is an example of SRU's leadership in helping veterans' transition to civilian life.

Dustin Sargo, a safety management major from Turtle Creek, served in the Marines from 2007-2011. He safeguarded Marines in a combat environment, conducted patrols and trained Marines prior to deployment. Sargo received a Purple Heart and Combat Action Ribbon for Global War on Terrorism for service in Afghanistan. Sargo has participated in the Equine Services for Heroes, riding Casper, a 28-year-old Thoroughbred.

"Veterans need and deserve support," he said. "Being with other veterans in the equestrian center and interacting with horses provides a type of therapy you can't get elsewhere."

The social interaction veterans experience in the equestrian setting promote what therapists call "community integration," said Jamie Sloan, recreation therapy supervisor for the VA Pittsburgh Health System.

"It gets them out of their setting and into a normal environment," she said. "It gives them connection to the outside world, which stimulates the senses and promotes brain activity."

She said a VA therapist takes veterans to Slippery Rock two times a month and that involvement decreases isolation and depression, which can improve physical health.

"It is one more leisure activity that gets them out of bed on a really bad day, where they get engaged and are able to meet other people," she said.

Students who volunteer in this program, as part of their recreational therapy classes said the work gives them a better understanding of veterans' emotional and physical needs.

Meghan Dunbar, a recreational therapy major from Freedom, has a lot of experience with horses so she joined the equine-assisted therapy team at Storm Harbor a year ago. She is doing an internship at VA Healthcare Butler and plans to take a group of veterans to Storm Harbor this summer.

"The Equine Services for Heroes program at Storm Harbor has benefits for both the veterans that participate and for the volunteers," she said. "Veterans experience benefits in their gross motor skills while riding and benefit in the fine motor skills while grooming the horses. Veterans also receive a social experience and can improve their confidence. The volunteers have satisfaction from knowing that they are serving the veterans that served our country."

She said every veteran she worked with had a great experience, even the ones who felt scared or nervous about riding.

"Once veterans get on a horse, they have a smile the entire time," she said.

Courtney Gramlich


SRU's Courtney Gramlich manages Storm Harbor, which opened 10 years ago as an educational facility offering activities for community clients with disabilities, including children with autism. She said Equine Services for Heroes resonates with veterans for many reasons.

"Some of them will reminisce about animals they have had or horses they've worked with in the past," Gramlich said. "It works so well because of the animal in general, the empathy of the animal, or they just connect with the animal. The animal is not asking them to do anything. The animal is not expecting anything out of them. Some benefit from the calming effect of the horse, even if they're grooming."

Some veterans arrive with no equestrian experience and believe they cannot ride because of disability.

"When we start these veterans out, many have never been around a horse or they might be an older adult who is frail, so we start out with grooming," Gramlich said. "We do some safety education and talk about horseback riding. They work with the horse a little. Then they learn to tack and saddle the horse."

One veteran recently took advantage of the center's wheelchair lift. He would not have been able to ride a horse without it.

"He just had the best time," Gramlich said. "He smiled and said, 'This is great, I want to come back.'"

Kemeny said the recreational therapy department's partnership with Storm Harbor provides learning opportunities. Students gain job skills and knowledge volunteering in an authentic environment, because they work with real clients.

"Overall, the program provides an individualized goal-directed program for multiple sessions for disabled veterans of all ages in order to enhance the rehabilitative, therapeutic, and whole life health of the disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed forces in an underserved geographic region," she said. "The program is integrated into the recreational therapy coursework through service learning experiences in order to prepare more than 120 students to provide rehabilitation and therapeutic health care services to veterans."

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