Equine therapy volunteer aids wounded warrior recovery, resilience
July 16, 2013
SAN ANTONIO (July 16, 2013) -- The mustachioed cowboy greets Cindy Tripoli, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston Equestrian Center manager, with a tip of his hat. He appears quite at home in this rustic atmosphere created by the sights, smells and sounds of the stable and its occupants, but then, back to the future, he pulls out a smart phone, his calloused fingers deftly calling up photos of a hog hunt with Spider, his mule, and begins an enthusiastic description of the event which ended in a lively discourse on equine breeding.
It's a comfortable, weekly ritual; a prelude to Tuesday morning equine therapy sessions for wounded warriors. The cowboy, Jed Elrod, is one of three volunteers who devote time, skill and experience to promote healing.
"An hour out here is worth months of traditional therapy," Elrod explained. "I'm a horse interpreter-part of a three way therapy team (made up) of a licensed counselor, an equine interpreter and the warrior."
Riding and caring for mules and horses since he learned to walk, this former U.S. Army Environmental Command employee's passion brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, not to mention a calm patient delivery, to therapy sessions.
"This therapy is so important," Tripoli said. "We see all types of injuries here -- burns, amputees, traumatic brain injury. We get a lot of guys that feel like they don't belong; they're looking for someplace to fit in and they find it here."
The team of volunteers and staff agree that one of the first benefits participants experience using equine therapy is a comforting change of scenery.
"They can think about something else besides their next appointment," Elrod and fellow volunteer, Sherman Mathey agreed.
"When they first arrive at Fort Sam, many of them are in early phases of recovery, their entire day consisting of a barrage of appointments in the hospital," Mathey added.
Elrod was encouraged by his first wife to become certified in therapeutic equine programs, such as OK Corral and Equine Assisted Growth and Learning.
"I always had an interest in horses, but my first wife inspired me," Elrod recalled. "I learned a lot from her and we were going to make a living at this. She passed away very suddenly and I eventually continued on. She had a horse that was so special, you see, so connected to her -- they danced together. And her relationship with that horse brought her through some tough times."
Cowboys are known to celebrate the journey that is life. Elrod's took him from range conservation with the Army to managing multiple parks and ranches, ranging in size from 84,000 to 107,000 acres. Perhaps better described as a renaissance man than a cowboy, Elrod is a blacksmith, Dutch-oven chef extraordinaire and is learning saddlery to make and sell the leather equipment necessary for his equine pursuits. Now remarried and retired, he pursues his passion for people and animals through equine therapy at Fort Sam Houston.
Don't call Elrod a horse-whisperer though, because, he says, he may have to do more than whisper. A lifetime of working with horses and mules has taught him that communication between humans and equine requires a firm but gentle approach. During Tuesday therapy sessions, Elrod shows the participants, anywhere from six to 12 service members, the art of sharing the barn with horses and mules.
"I work alongside Annie and Heather, the therapeutic riding instructor and recreational therapist, to show the warriors some basics," Elrod said. "It's a real challenge for the riders to overcome the loss of a limb and accept help. When you don't have a hand, it's hard to tie a knot. I show them easier ways to do things and interpret behavior; the mule or horse's response to them."
Equine therapy puts wounded warriors in a judgment free environment. The animals accept the attention of the Soldiers with no notice of disfiguring injuries or prosthetic limbs.
"My part in this is to be the interpreter of people and equine," Elrod said. "We work with many amputees. Some are missing legs or arms. I've met a young lady missing part of her foot. The mule doesn't care as long as he understands what you're asking him to do."
At the heart of the wounded warriors' therapy, according to Elrod, is a desire to feel useful.
"They just want to be accepted as just another member of the team," the volunteer said. "The part that's so amazing is how fast these wounded warriors and equine learn to work together. It's just so fun, seeing people reach that 'aha!' moment when they realize that they are part of a team. They're not alone and they can deal with any situation."
The program itself is a complex dynamic personal and organizational partnership, according to Tripoli, each individual and group holds diverse talents and assets, dependent upon all for success.
"We have a number of therapeutic equestrian programs for wounded warriors and their families, averaging 50 events a month, offered through a partnership with the WTB (Warrior Transition Battalion) and Warrior & Family Support Center," she said. "Tuesdays are part of the wounded warriors' medical appointments and care plan. We own the horses and mules, and work with the therapists, volunteers and organizations to provide the best possible experience."
Volunteers like Elrod, retired Army veterinarian "Doc" Mathey and retired Army chaplain "Big Jim" Boelens add a whole new dynamic to the program, according to Tripoli and MWR therapeutic riding instructor, Annie Blakely.
"We look for a very particular type of person when it comes to volunteers," Blakely said, "and these three really are part of the team. Jim and Sherm are old school Army guys, so they have an understanding of what it means to be in the service. They're all helpful, without being over motherly, which is what's needed. The goal is independence."
"They are the most amazing men -- larger than life," described Tripoli. "They're so interesting and well educated. Sherman and Jed are putting a whole new twist on the program with therapeutic driving."
Seeing a need, the volunteers suggested that adding mule driving would take the existing equine therapy sessions to the next level.
"Learning to drive has a number of benefits," Elrod explained. "We can get the warriors involved sooner -- for some it might be easier to get into a cart because they aren't healed enough to ride. It's also great hand eye coordination exercise and an intermediate option for those who are nervous about getting in a saddle or who might experience pain in one."
After the preliminaries, the team is eager to begin driving and look forward to it with enthusiasm. They identified two mules within the MWR stables with pulling experience; the volunteers brought in a cart and are now gathering the final pieces of equipment necessary to offer this unique therapy opportunity.
While Tripoli is concerned that most people don't understand the value of the therapeutic equine program, the participants -- their progress and journey of healing keep Elrod and his fellow volunteers coming back every Tuesday morning.
"It's very gratifying to give back," Elrod said. "I've done this for marriage counseling, eating disorders and physical therapies. Some of the warriors are becoming really involved. One young man, named Rick, is really enthusiastic. He started riding, bought a horse of his own and now looks forward to driving. These guys and gals bring it down to a very personal human level."
For more information about the Fort Sam Houston therapeutic equestrian program or MWR activities, please contact the equestrian center at (210) 224-7207.