Katherine Grady, with FMWR in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., rides Vision around the ring at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Riding Club during a "train the trainers" program, Aug. 18. Dozens of professionals from Warrior Transition Units and FMWR offices gathered at the club to learn how the horse therapy program could help Wounded Warriors.

YELM, Wash. -- Leading his horse around the stable, Sgt. Lester Perez handled his companion with ease, getting it to "talk" before topping to groom it.

Perez, a Warrior with Charlie Company, started riding horses as a teenager in his home country of Nicaragua, but is re-learning to ride after he severely injured both legs in an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan in February.

One of seven Soldiers enrolled in the Rainier Therapeutic Riding program near Yelm, Perez signed up both because, "I love riding horses, and they started this program for therapeutic riding."
The eight-week equine therapy program brings in Warrior Transition Battalion Soldiers once a week to Serenity Farms to work with horses volunteered by their owners. Working with horses can help Soldiers with emotional stress because animals provide therapy for humans, according to the Rainier Therapeutic Riding Program.

The second reason we believe horses can be effective for Soldiers with trauma is because horses are highly reactive," said Bob Woelk, executive director of the group, which is associated with national program North American Riding for Handicapped Association. Horses mimic human emotions, so if handlers are upset or anxious, horses will reflect that.

Although Perez is experienced with the animals, other Soldiers enter the pro-gram as complete beginners, so it's important they are all taught to be calm to work with the animals. "The horses aren't going to behave functionally for you until you settle down and open up to the horse," Woelk said. "We want to be trained to recognize horse behavior, and be trained to deal with that."

For those Soldiers who are resistant to opening up to people, relating to animals may be an easier first step, he said. "The animal-human relationship is going to be safer for the Soldiers."
Perez agrees that working with horses makes it easier to work with people. "It's very peaceful, and I guess when you make a connection with the horse, you're very calm. You have to trust the horse... If you can trust an animal like that, it'll help you bond with other people," Perez said, noting that for him, riding also helps with balance and strengthening his legs.

The program organizers dream of adding a second phase to the program offering trail riding, mountain camping and more. "We'd like to offer advanced horsemanship in whatever direction riders want to head in," Woelk said.

Also, while Rainier Therapuetic Riding's main focus is on behavioral health, the group may expand to provide more one-on-one attention for physical therapy.

Just being a part of the equine program is putting Perez on the path he wants to be on - bringing horseback riding back into his life. He'll be out on the trails again soon, enjoying his favorite pastime.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16