Horseback riding program now provides certified therapy for wounded warriors
November 4, 2010
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A child with a severe cognitive disability suddenly giggles sitting atop a horse. A teen smiles broadly discovering he can control a 900-pound animal, though his legs were amputated. A spouse whose husband is deployed enjoys the backwoods trails on horseback.
Riding horses has been used as a viable supplement to traditional therapy for physical disabilities, mental and behavioral challenges, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse for years according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Horseback riding is an activity that distracts the mind from the stress that these patients deal with on a regular basis," said Heather Miller, a recreational therapist at Brooke Army Medical Center.
"It gets them out of the clinical setting and into nature, but it also requires them to focus their mind and energy solely on one thing."
Though using horses to help treat a variety of physical and psychological issues has been a part of therapy programs outside the military, the Army only officially recognized equine therapy as beneficial recently, offering wounded warriors an opportunity to participate in the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc.'s "Horses for Heroes" program at Fort Sam Houston; and certifying four therapeutic riding instructors.
Cindy Tripoli, Beth Mann, Connie Blocker and Annie Blakely were certified as therapeutic riding instructors, Oct. 23 after a year-long process that included 24 hours of hands-on mentoring.
The four Equestrian Center employees are the first certified instructors for equine therapy on a military installation.
The equestrian center has been providing recreational riding for Exceptional Family Member Program Families and wounded warriors since 2006. However, there were times they would have to turn away riders due to safety concerns. Certification provides instructors with expertise in safety procedures for riders with the severest challenges seeking therapy.
"We have seen the benefits of recreational riding for wounded warriors, Family members and patrons enrolled in the EFMP," Tripoli said.
"With our certification, we can now do more to safely provide therapeutic riding and facilitate a higher quality of life for persons with a broad range of disabilities."
Part of equine therapy is getting the rider and the horse familiar with each other as well as teaching the rider how to care for the horses. Riders are encouraged to do the majority of the work with supervision including brushing, cleaning hooves and saddling so that horses and riders interact before riding.
Therapy riders are not expected to have experience with horses and many have never been on or near a horse.
"As they learn to become comfortable with their horse, they learn how to relax. These are lessons that they can take back to the clinic," Miller said.
With the establishment of the Fort Sam Houston equine therapy program, the instructors are looking to expand. Tripoli, Mann, Blocker and Blakely are also trained as NARHA mentors, which qualifies them to provide training to other installations.
"There is such a need across the country and we would like to reach out to help other installations develop their own programs and become certified," Mann said, as she prepared for the arrival of a group of wounded warriors for an equine therapy session.
"Our goals are to continue our training and [that the Fort Sam Houston Equine Center's therapy program] be a leader for other military centers by becoming a Premier Accredited Center."
"As the program grows, we are going to need a lot more volunteers," Tripoli said. "Volunteers are always appreciated and we need them to help [walk along with] or lead the horses."
For information about the program, click on the NARHA website at http://www.narha.org. To volunteer, call 210-224-7207.