Veterans at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System are partnering with horses on their road to recovery.
While participating in Equine Assisted Learning workshops at the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy in Sarasota, Florida, Veterans in the Warriors in Transition program do a lot more than simply ride.
“What we do here is a lot of team building and grounding exercises,” explains Bay Pines Recreation Therapist Elizabeth Blankenship. “We learn about the horses, their behaviors, how they communicate with each other, and then we move into speaking about how we communicate and interact with others on a personal level and then draw a connection to what we’ve learned here, to our everyday lives.”
The goal is that by partnering with horses, Veterans will acquire new ways of coping with anxiety and stress. As prey animals, horses are highly sensitive to emotions and the messages behind them. Through observing how horses relate to one another and then interacting with the horses themselves, workshop participants learn to ask for space, set healthy boundaries, lead without force, relax without losing awareness and rebuild trust.
The program was developed by Terry Murray, a U.S. Navy Veteran, and Warriors in Transition facilitator, to help active-duty military and Veterans as they navigate the challenges of repeated deployment cycles.
According to Murray, equine-assisted learning can result in the growth of new brain cells. “There are biomedical changes in the brain that are occurring when people are in nature and are working with the horses in this environment.”
For U.S. Army Veteran Jesse Raoul, equine therapy has “helped me re-establish relationships with people that I’ve been dealing with. It also has helped me to learn to live a healthier and better quality of life.”
The program “has helped me to connect the information I’ve learned in the classroom with real everyday life experiences,” says U.S. Army Veteran Amy King. “This experience has motivated me to really put in the work that it takes to get better.”
“You can’t reach everyone with conventional therapy,” says Bay Pines Recreation Therapist Jared Ezzard. “Some people respond better in this type of environment. We’ve seen Veterans who have had little to no interaction with people blossom here.”
Melanie L. Thomas, MBA, is a Public Affairs Specialist at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
All photos by Bay Pines VA Healthcare System