There is something about a horse—a solid, warm, and silent creature— that can soothe and connect with even the most traumatized souls. Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship, located in Bellwood, PA, specializes in just that: uniting detached, troubled veterans with an equine partner who can help them unearth their humanity.
John Zanella, founder of the no-cost Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship for military veterans, is a strong advocate for the benefits of equine therapy. A twenty-year Army veteran with eleven combat tours under his belt, Zanella faced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and numerous physical injuries that caused a medical retirement from his military life.
Since he grew up with horses and continued to ride in the Army, Zanella was cajoled to participate in an equine therapy program at the Warrior Transition Battalion in Fort Lewis, WA. It was this program, he said, that helped him find the will to keep fighting. “Studies are showing suicide at a horrific rate among veterans at twenty-two each day. It was only through therapeutic riding that I found the will to keep fighting and not become just another statistic,” said Zanella.
After moving to Pennsylvania to keep in touch with family, Zanella quickly realized that even with the large veteran population, most of the equine therapies in the area catered to children. “While the existing programs are great and much needed, adult-centered equine therapy was not available. In the absence of something, you create it…and that’s what I did,” explained Zanella.
Prey Animal Partnership
In March of 2015, Zanella filled the void with the official launch of Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship. With eight-week cycles of introductory and intermediate courses, participants build confidence through routine and consistency in a natural horsemanship setting. “They don’t even get on a horse for the first five weeks,” explained Zanella. “It’s not necessarily about the riding component. It’s about each week building on the prior week’s lesson, learning horse behavior, and establishing leadership. The biggest thing with this type of trauma (PTSD) is that these veterans view their world much like a horse does, like a prey animal. It is constantly fight or flight, and they are always looking behind them for danger. I think this is why horses are easier to connect with and establish a partnership with, compared to other humans.”
When the veterans are focusing on the horse, they are no longer focusing on their own problems. They have to learn to communicate with this larger, more powerful animal, who at the same time is very calm and trusting. As most horse enthusiasts know, each horse has its own personality, quirks, and emotions. However, these horses do not have any pre-existing expectations of the veteran, but take each interaction at face value. “I’ve talked to wives of veterans who do not say anything at home,” said Zanella. “Yet with the horses, they can open up. They don’t want to sit with some stranger and share stories. The horses break through these barriers, both mentally and physically. One amputee broke down in tears while we were on the trails because he never thought he would feel the wind in his face or be able to move his body like this ever again.”
A Backbone of Volunteers
Zanella assess and trains the horses himself for the program, and ultimately would like the program to expand to the point where the veterans would also be a part of that process. “It’s a continued process of learning and doing,” said Zanella. “Pennsylvania loves their veterans, and finding riders hasn’t been a problem. As with any non-profit, our greatest challenge is funding and finding enough volunteers, both horse and human.”
Most of the horses in the program are there on a volunteer basis with their owners, who bring them in as needed to the loaned facility. Since the horses constantly mirror the behavior of the tense and skittish veterans they are helping, Zanella tries rotating horses to keep them from getting burned out. Among the horses in the lineup are a variety of steady-minded mares and gelding with smooth gaits and sweet dispositions.
“We have great support out here,” said Zanella, “Our volunteers are amazing. When the veterans do start to ride, most have had little to no experience in the saddle and need a leader and two side-walkers per horse. It’s not just volunteers with horse experience either, but also the people who help put together fundraisers and events. We know that not everyone can volunteer long hours or donate large financial contributions, and we try to provide simple ways to stay involved.”
VTH in October
Coming on October 10, Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship is presenting a screening of the film “Riding My Way Back,” a documentary of a veteran who went through the same equine therapy program as Zanella did in Washington. “This is very personal to me because the subject is a good friend…he was a mentor and this documentary totally depicts what they go through and the amazing effects of horses on their lives,” said Zanella. This short film has won multiple awards for its outstanding cinematography and content.
On October 24, Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship is partnering with the Northern Blair County Recreation Center to host the First Annual Victory Run, a race which gives the participants the opportunity to honor a beloved veteran during the ten or five kilometer run, or two-mile walk in Altoona, PA.
In the six months since opening, Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship has hosted tack sales, volunteer drives, and a sporting clay fun shoot, attended a therapeutic horsemanship convention as well as an American Competitive Trail Horse Association event, sold “bravelets” as one of multiple fundraisers, and have only just started getting the word out.
“In the future, I think our only limits are our imagination,” said Zanella. “I’d love to see our own facility with a wide selection of horses that could help veterans several days a week. These needs won’t go away, and not just for veterans either. Anyone who has gone through abuse or domestic violence, or children of deployed soldiers…there are so many different demographics that could benefit from equine therapy.”
Interested in helping Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship? Contact John Zanella online at www.victoryhorse.org or via Facebook at Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship. More details regarding the film “Riding My Way Back” (www.ridingmywayback.com) and the Victory Run can be found on the Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship Facebook page.