When a Horse Meets a Veteran

When a Horse Meets a Veteran
By Cathleen Bottini

Upon graduating with my Bachelor of Science degree from Santa Clara University I decided to take the coming year to give back to my community, and who better to serve than our very own local veterans? Last summer I spent time teaching veterans how to ride horses, and guided them on trail rides through Portola Valley, California. It was upon this journey that I saw before my eyes the power that arises when a horse meets a veteran.

As I drove down the long dusty road to the ranch each day and awaited the veteran’s arrival, I knew that this summer was going to be a special one. Maybe it was the smiles that I saw when each veteran met the horse who would be their equine partner throughout the summer, or maybe it was the way the horses interacted with such love, patience and gentleness, as if they knew the significance of these men and women of service; Either way, I knew that helping our veterans would be a life changing experience.

Each veteran was paired with a horse that would be his or her partner throughout the summer. Each horse was chosen to match the veteran’s individual physical and emotional needs. Some of the veterans were soft spoken and had more subtle movement in their legs and hands. These veterans needed a sensitive horse that would respond well to a quiet squeeze of the legs and a quiet pressure on the reins. Other veterans had more elaborate leg and hand movement; These veterans needed a horse that would respond well to a stronger squeeze to go forward or a stronger tug to slow down or stop. In pairing veterans with the correct horse, we learned more about their physical and emotional necessities and personalities, and each horse was attuned to their veteran’s needs. This allowed for the most rewarding experiences.

The summer began with the veterans learning to catch their horse, groom their horse, and how to saddle and bridle. Beginning with steering their horses in the arena at a walk, the veteran’s skills quickly progressed to guiding their horses at different gates, and thereafter along trails for increased periods of time. As the weeks progressed the veteran’s horsemanship skills improved dramatically, and they reported the many benefits they were finding from working with their horses. These benefits included improvements in movement in their hands and legs from learning how to work with the horse’s reins, and learning how to properly ask the horse to go and “whoa.”

Just as I witnessed the veteran’s horsemanship and physical strength improve dramatically, I also saw an increased ability of the veterans to find peace and happiness. Each veteran I worked with suffered from an injury or ailment often including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Despite these horrific conditions, in this setting the veterans were able to find peace of mind. Being in a quiet, tranquil atmosphere of rolling hills and with the friendly company of horses, fellow veterans and volunteers, these men and women could become centered in the joy of the moment. The veterans carried on fun conversation, laughed and smiled throughout our trail rides. I was even able to learn some military hand signals that the men and women playfully shared with us along the trails. By the end of the summer veterans reported a great decrease in feelings of anxiety, isolation and depression, and a large increase in feelings of peace, social inclusion and happiness. A number of veterans enjoyed this experience so much that they embarked on a weeklong horseback riding trip in Idaho after the program.

There is something about horses that is powerfully healing. Horses are large, not just in their size but also in their spirit. Bonding with a horse in a tranquil country setting allows our veterans to release fear and worries and forget, even if just for a few hours, the immense struggles they are facing.

Having years of experience working for therapeutic horseback riding programs and having worked with Jasper Ridge Farm, a non-profit animal therapy organization for this past year, I have continuously witnessed the incredible benefits of animal interaction. Animals do not mind if you are homeless, if you have lost your hair from cancer treatment, or if you interact differently due to disabilities. Animal therapy allows children and adults to be themselves with the loving support of animals. Many people in need benefit from animal therapy including those facing life-threatening illnesses, homelessness or domestic violence.

When a veteran meets a horse, an incredible healing transformation occurs. It is our responsibility to take care of our men and women of service, and to provide them with healing programs like therapeutic horseback riding. These veterans gifted us with the right of improving and aiding our communities. It is our turn to aid them back to living active, fulfilling lives.

To show your support or to get involved please visit: www.jasperridgefarm.org

Photographs by Cathleen Bottini and Wendy Mattes

Copyright February 2015 by Cathleen Bottini

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