September 2017 | Building Bridges Foundation Helps Veterans and Their Families
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Building Bridges Foundation Helps Veterans and Their Families

Marcella Peyre-Ferry - September 2017

Alluson Plasterer and Gene VandiverFounder Alluson Plasterer and farm manager Gene Vandiver pose with one of Building Bridges Foundation retired racehorses.

You don’t have to ride a horse to benefit from being around them. Just being with horses and working with them from the ground can bring emotional issues into perspective and help with healing.

Building Bridges Foundation, a non-profit organization based at Anderson Farms in Conestoga, PA, offers an Equine Assisted Therapy program specializing in helping veterans, active duty service members and their families through equine assisted psychotherapy.

Started in January 2017, Building Bridges Foundation began with a series of six group Saturday sessions for veterans. “We’re very new and very growing,” Equine Specialist Allyson Plasterer said. 

Each week’s session begins with journaling therapy through an organization called Write Face, followed by work with the horses, and then another writing session.

“Sometimes there’s a specific directive that they go out and do a specific activity with the horses and within that interaction things happen. Stuff comes up for the veteran,” Plasterer said. “Horses pick up on their inconsistencies and incongruities and energies and through that, things come to surface and get processed. Our belief is that it is very solution oriented and everybody has their own solutions inside of them. We hold that space and help facilitate that exploring.”

Plasterer works along with mental health specialists during the sessions. Trained under the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Learning and Growth Association) system, Plasterer’s role is to facilitate the connection between humans and horses, making sure that both stay safe.

Plasterer described a case from one of the early sessions at Building Bridges, where the group was first asked to write about the triggers that set off emotional disturbances for them. 

When they went to the arena to work with the horses, the focus on triggers continued. After mindful meditation as a beginning, the veterans were asked to think of three triggers in their life and use props such as cones, pool noodles, hula hoops, etc., to symbolize them. One Iraq veteran used a plastic beach shovel to represent one of the triggers.

“He shared with us, that was his trigger on all the deaths that he had to deal with during his time in the military overseas,” she said.

When it was his turn to lead a horse through the triggers, he selected Mr. Friendly, a horse that is very outgoing and interested in people. “As he led Mr. Friendly over to this shovel, Mr. Friendly stopped and started pawing,” Plasterer recalls.

When asked why the horse did that the veteran’s reply was. “He’s showing he’s upset and angry and that’s exactly how I feel about the loss of my friends.”

“Whatever their experience or interpretation is, we go with that. It becomes their story and we follow their story,” Plasterer said. “Even if it’s only for a moment of expression of emotion, that’s better than holding it in and never talking about it. The veteran can go as little in that conversation or as big as they want to in releasing what they want to say or not say.”

Range of Personalities

There are five Thoroughbreds, former race horses, in the program, with other breeds scheduled to be added as well. They have a range of personalities that appeal to different people. The idea is for the veteran to be around the horses and begin to make a connection with them. Usually they will gravitate to a particular horse that becomes a favorite for them to work with.

“Personally, for me, I found what horses can do for you is help you grow as a person and help you feel a connection with something larger than yourself,” Plasterer said. “These horses are very in tune with people. They’re able to pick up and sense things that are going on with people and play out things that are going on for them.”

The horses currently in the program were residents of the farm before Building Bridges Foundation began. Plasterer is a friend of farm owner Dave Anderson, who was planning on selling the site. She had told him about her idea for an equine assisted therapy program, and he suggested that the Lancaster County farm would be a good location. Anderson still owns the farm, but now it is home to Building Bridges.

Plasterer’s experience with horses goes back to her youth, when she ran barrel racers. After moving to New York City she was introduced to Thoroughbreds and English riding. She is a school teacher most of the year, but is also certified by EAGALA  in their therapy techniques.

Participants for the programs at Building Bridges come from a number of sources, including referrals from Veterans Court, and therapists from Lancaster, Lebanon and Coatesville. Some have found Building Bridges Foundation on their own through newspaper stories. No previous experience with horses is needed, and veterans may be of any age, having served at any time.

“There aren’t a lot of programs out there for veterans in dealing with what they have going on after they come back. We thought we would be a solution,” Plasterer said. “Luckily there’s an awareness today.”

The equine assisted therapy programs for veterans are the main mission of Building Bridges Foundation, but that work goes wider than helping the individual. Families of veterans feel the impact of the stress the veterans are going through, whether it is PTSD or other difficulties adjusting to civilian life.

Family Dynamics

Individual sessions are also available as well as family sessions, where insights into family dynamics can be found with the help of horses.

Plasterer tells of one family that was asked to set out a place in the arena for the horse using the elements they found in the ring. This seemingly simple task turned into a time-consuming conflict as the family members could not agree on what to do. When they finally completed their design and led the horse into it, the horse stayed a few minutes then left on its own, as if sensing the tension and wishing to avoid the conflict. A family member then conceded that they have trouble doing things as a group because they argue, and waste time instead of enjoying time together. Though the family may have realized this was a problem, learning that a horse could see it too made them look at their situation in a new way, and hopefully led them to a resolution.

In addition to the structured sessions in Equine Therapy, Plasterer is planning a more casual program that would allow participants who have already learned to work with the horses safely to come to the farm on their own time, just to groom the horses, or be with them one on one.

“That in itself can be very therapeutic,” Plasterer said. “Sometimes just going out and having a conversation with a horse and getting out what they need to say and not feeling like they are being judged for it in any way.”

A New Life

Farm manager Gene Vandiver came to Building Bridges Foundation about ten months ago. “Allyson sent for a veteran from the VA to come out and help with the farm work, and the horses changed my life,” he said. “I was in a VA program (in Lebanon, PA), after a rough time in my life. I tried to commit suicide and failed, and ended up in the VA.”

Vandiver credits the horses for helping him see a new side to life, He has even adopted a Saddlebred of his own and is learning to ride, “I was on all kinds of medications. Now, 10 months later, I’m off the medications. They told me to go enjoy my life,” he said.

Building Bridges Foundation programs are free for veterans, their spouses and caregivers. The non-profit is always in need of donations of any size to keep their work going. “Any kind of help is appreciated, no help is too small,” Plasterer said.

Building Bridges Foundation can be found on Facebook at Horses 4 Vets., or for more information call (717) 368-3019 or visit buildingbridgesfoundation.com.