Horses Help Returning Veterans Combat PTSD
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Horses Help Returning Veterans Combat PTSD
August 2012 - Marcella Peyre-Ferry

Riders at Crooked Fence FarmRiders at Crooked Fence Farm receive equine therapy that helps them to speak, to sleep better, and to relate to others in a better way. The farm has been very successful in the past years in helping vets with PTSD and wounded vets with physical needs.

Post traumatic stress is a pandemic in veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Kenneth Bennett of Crooked Fence Farm in Rochester Mills, PA. Bennett, a Vietnam veteran who himself suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says the current generation of veterans is far more affected by PTSD than was his.

“Every 80 minutes a person returns from a war zone with PTSD. Every day a military person commits suicide,” Bennett said. “More people returning from war zones are killing themselves than are killed in the war zone. The divorce rate for returning vets is 35 percent. Twelve percent of returning vets commit murder.”

Though half of Vietnam vets experienced PTSD, a condition that wasn’t recognized by the government until 1998, long after the war ended, “We never had this problem with Vietnam vets. We were raised differently; it didn’t affect us as badly.”

Meanwhile, he said, “The US is the only country that doesn’t take care of returning troops. The government doesn’t have the $2 - $3 billion to treat them.”

Enter Horses4Heroes. The mission of the Las Vegas-based, non-profit organization is to make horseback riding accessible to active duty service members, veterans and their families and first responders at a reduced cost through a network of participating stables.

Created in 2006, the organization has a network of 160 participating facilities in 40 states and Canada. Stables represent all types of riding styles, and offer a variety of services.

A Horses4Heroes one-time membership fee of $25 per family ($50 in the Las Vegas area) includes a membership card, t-shirts, and selected store discounts as well as reduced rates at participating riding facilities.

Services vary at each facility. Overall, Horses4Heroes offers a variety of programs including horse camps and clinics; members-only events and horse shows; HorsePlay for pre-school and kindergarten children; Birthday party packages for members only; Girl Scout visits; welcome home/send-off parties; and discounted riding lessons from local instructors.

In June the Pinto World Championship Show in Tulsa, OK included a Horses4Heroes Walk-Trot Open class where seventeen active duty service members, Wounded Warriors, and family members participated.

Help for Veterans with PTSD
Bennett, 72, has been working with wounded vets since 1968, for the last 15 along with his wife Wanda, 64. Their Crooked Fence Farm recently joined the Horses4Heroes network. “We help them to speak, to sleep better, to relate to others in a better way,” Wanda said. Working with horses is therapeutic as far as relieving stress. We talk to their therapists and doctors as to what they need physically and mentally, what will help them with PTSD and with personal loss.”

“PTSD affects people differently. Some people shake, some have severe headaches, others are bothered by sleeplessness. PTSD is severe anger, mistrust, depression, suicidal tendencies,” Kenneth said. “In working with them we first introduce them to the horse, which these big strong guys and women can find very intimidating initially. If they shake, I will put their hand on the horse near its heart and hold it there, and they will stop trembling for a bit. We move on to grooming, hugging, learning horse language, and to riding lesions.

“We are also T.I.P. trainers under the Bureau of Land Management Trainer Incentive Program and we work with mustangs. Working with wild, unhandled mustangs can go a long way toward helping vets relearn how to trust people. They will always be on medication, but we can almost turn a person around in six months. We have interns from around the world who come to learn our methods,” Kenneth, who is writing a book on the subject, said.

Crooked Fence Farm works with wounded vets with physical needs as well as students with all sorts of special needs. They recently started the first program in their area to address autism.

Operation Free Ride
Working with the Armed Forces Foundation, the Operation Free Ride program gives military members and veterans a chance to sign up for a free riding session at a participating stable.

“The whole point of Operation Free Ride is to reach out to our returning combat veterans,” Sydney Knott, Horses4Heroes president and executive director explained. “We’ve been told by the VA, getting those families reunited, reconnected, and reacquainted is very important to them. If we can do it through horseback riding that’s what we should do.”

To make the program work, more participating facilities were needed. In February, the American Quarter Horse Association got on board with an e-mail blast to members encouraging them to participate in Operation Free Ride. The Pinto Horse Association followed with an email blast as well, and more organizations joined the effort, including the Certified Horsemanship Association, American Riding Instructors Association, American Association of Riding Schools, and the American Horse Council and its Unwanted Horse Coalition.  A series of open houses have been held across the country to kick-off Operation Free Ride.

Operation Free Ride participating facilities quickly jumped from 40 to over 100, and the numbers are still growing. In Pennsylvania there are at least a half dozen locations scattered across the state.

Rock Ridge Ranch
Rock Ridge Ranch of Dingman’s Ferry, PA just became involved with Horses4Heroes this summer. “I became involved because we need to bring people together for the future of our country and what better way than those who serve or have served and their families,” said owner Debra Passero. “Anything that brings people together with horses is a win/win situation.”

Passero has not had any riders with the program yet, but she looks forward to being involved. “I know we will host many in the future. We offer western and English lessons, summer camp, clinics, and birthday parties and just became an equestrian Special Olympic ranch in Pike County,” she said.

More than 1,000 people have registered for their "free ride" through the special Web site, Operation Free Ride participating stables in Pennsylvania at the time of this writing include: America’s Cowgirl Horse Training (Starrucca, Wayne County); Angels in Horse Hairs (Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County); Bauer Farm (Pittsburgh); Crooked Fence Farm (Rochester Mills, Indiana County); Reinbow’s End Farm (Malvern, Chester County); Rock Ridge Ranch (Dingmans Ferry, Pike County); Therapeutic Riding Equestrian Center (Fairview, Erie County); Vanderbeek Farm and Van Wyk Farms (Hawley, Wayne County).

Not all Operation Free Ride locations also participate in Horses4Heroes.

The stables that are a part of Horses4Heroes have the flexibility to expand their individual programs to include law enforcement officers, firefighters/EMTs, critical care and hospice nurses, special needs school teachers and families who are struggling with serious, chronic illnesses and/or disabilities. “It’s up to each community who you want to honor and who you want to recognize,” Knott said.

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