Charitable organization uses horseback riding to help wounded warriors get back on their feet
April 22, 2013
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- At a peaceful ranch on the outskirts of the suburbs, where barn cats and peacocks roam freely, Sgt. Michael Buccieri, grooms Davis, a 6-year-old, ex-race horse. The repetitive, smooth movements of the brush on Davis' skin takes him completely out of himself and helps to create a barrier from Afghanistan in a way the physical distance hasn't yet.
In 2011, Buccieri, a military policeman with the 54th Military Police Company out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was walking through an apple orchard after conducting a routine meeting with a local governor.
His squad was ambushed. Buccieri was shot in the back; his medic was shot in the leg. It was, as Buccieri described it, 'a pretty bad day' and the injury has had a lasting impact on him.
"It tore all the muscles through my back. My liver, kidney and lung were punctured. I went through seven or eight different surgeries to repair that and the fist-sized hole in my back. My back hurts all day long. It radiates through my ribcage, (the bullet) completely destroyed one of my ribs, and they did three surgeries through my stomach to get to the organs that needed to be repaired and so my abs are useless," said Buccieri. "I can pretty much just walk."
While working with an occupational therapist at Magidan Army Medical Center's Warrior Transition Battalion, Buccieri learned about a hippotherapy program offered through the Heartbeat Serving Wounded Warriors foundation.
Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word meaning "horse", use the rhythmical gait of the horse to normalize movement, strengthen deep core muscles and improve balance. There are also associated benefits to the mental and emotional health of the rider.
Heartbeat was founded four years ago by Janice Buckley, a woman who had never served in the military herself but still felt the call to help those who she believes are the best Americans.
The charity provides emergency assistance, therapeutic and morale programs. Back in the Saddle Warriors, a clinical hippotherapy program, overseen by an occupational therapist and a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certified equine instructor, has been popular with Soldiers from the MAMC WTB.
"The reason I started (Heartbeat) is really a God-given fire. I am so grateful for those people who wear the uniform. Our warriors are doing the most incredible job, and we need to be there with them," said Buckley.
The idea for the program began with a feeling she had in her heart about horses and their potential to help wounded warriors.
Initial research she conducted had shown a lot of progress working with children who had similar health issues. She praised the leadership and medical staff at the WTB for being open to a hippotherapy program.
"I think, for myself, being around warriors, I have learned so much. They have made me a better person," said Buckley. "What gives me the most satisfaction is talking with the warriors and seeing the improvements. They love the program. Like Mike said, he wants to stay in the program forever. So, hearing things like that makes me want to do more. It's very invigorating."
Buckley is hopeful that as word gets out about her program and the positive change it has made in the lives of wounded warriors it will catch on around the country.
Buccieri has been coming out to groom and ride Davis for five weeks. Although he was initially a skeptic of the program, he said it has caused a huge transformation in his life.
"I recommend this program to people all the time. When I find out people are looking into doing (hippotherapy), I'm like 'you should do it, it's the greatest thing ever.' When I come here, it's the best time I have all week," said Buccieri. "I can come here completely mad or hurting and grooming the horse, it just calms me down. It's like having a best friend that you just get to play with for a couple of hours, and you're actually getting exercise out of it as well."
The goal of hippotherapy, like other tools of occupational therapy, is to improve the daily functionality of the participant and Buccieri has noticed a difference already.
He said he feels looser and able to bend forward at the waist much further than he could prior to attending the program.
His goal by the conclusion of hippotherapy is to be able to touch his toes again. Additionally, being with Davis has had a big impact on his morale and pain levels.
"I can't even explain how good it makes me feel. It takes everything else away. It makes me happy," Buccieri said.
Going forward he said he hopes to continue to work with horses and would like to volunteer so he can help other wounded warriors recover through hippotherapy.