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Riding To The Top hosts War Veterans

Published: 12/2/2012
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By Maddy Butcher Gray

This fall, Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center took a big first step in expanding its offerings to yet another worthy population. Veterans.

Working in conjunction with Embrace-A-Vet, a fledgling non-profit out of Harpswell, RTT hosted nearly a dozen veterans during a day of equine-assisted learning. Participants learned that the benefits of the equine experience can extend beyond the traditional horse-rider connection. One can learn and grow mightily on the ground, connecting with the animal as well as with fellow humans.

According to organizers and attendees, the event was “eye-opening” and “amazing.” The pilot offering may blaze a new trail of assistance for this under-served population and their under-the-surface struggles.

The veterans, many diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, visited RTT’s Windham barn for a day of exercises in personal discovery and team building, all carefully planned and choreographed by executive director, Sarah Bronson, her staff, and Joy Johnson of Embrace-A-Vet.
The veterans brought a supportive partner – a spouse, parent, child, or friend. They ranged in age from 35 to 70 years old and came from Houlton, Camden, Otisfield, as well as out-of-state. Some were in Vietnam. Others were sent to more recent wars.
At first, many simply had to get used to being around the 1,000 pound animals.

“A few were very hesitant to be around horses,” said Bronson. “We talked about herd dynamics. We watched them move around. We watched them move each other. We talked about their horse personalities.”

The vets worked through two exercises geared toward using team work and good communication. Photos show participants working together to put on a halter with each team member only using one hand apiece. (Try it! It’s not easy.)

Another photo illustrates the team trying to work together to move a horse into a space without any contact or coercion. (Might be simple to us horse owners. But remember, these folks had little or no experience.)

Some horses were very willing. Others offered more of a challenge.

“At times there was a struggle because of the horse, because of the team's abilities, or because of their communication,” said Bronson.

One vet said in a feedback letter, “I learned I have to let things go. Keep my mouth shut. I must learn to let others lead.”

“It was very rewarding,” said Bronson. At the end of the day, many of the staff and support crew “came away as energized as the vets.”

Kudos to program organizers. We'll look forward to hearing about more of these kind of efforts. Horses, it seems, can help heal just by being there.

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12/3/2012 KPollard

"It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but it is absolutely true - if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong" - Mary Twelveponies