Riding Equines to Achieve Confidence and Health (REACH) Therapeutic Riding Center: A safe haven for veterans
By Annette P. Gomes, Warrior Care and Transition

ARLINGTON, Va. - Located approximately 60 miles outside of Fort Hood, Texas lies one of nature's blessings, 400 acres of farmland dedicated to the Riding Equines to Achieve Confidence and Health (REACH) Therapeutic Riding Center.

Their slogan is simple: A place where miracles happen daily; Children with autism focus and thrive physically, challenged riders discover independence and self-confidence. Those who struggle with behavioral health issues channel behavior, increase motivation and find acceptance.

It's a safe haven for veterans like Rachel Staton.

"The [Riding Equines to Achieve Confidence and Health] program is definitely a life saver. I have been in counseling and on medication for more than 20 years. Nothing has been as helpful as this program," Staton said.

More than 20 years ago, a life changing moment altered the trajectory of Staton's life. Shortly after she entered the military, Staton was sexually assaulted by another Soldier. The effects of that event took her to dark places as she tried to recover from what happened.

"For years I used cutting as a way to deal with stress and anxiety. I was being hospitalized several times a year. It wasn't good at all," Staton said. Things would finally start to change two years ago when a transition advocate referred her to the REACH Program. "Since I have been in the program I have not felt overwhelming need to cut. I can hold my head up high and be proud of my progress," said Staton.

Program Director and Army veteran, Jesse Allen, says many veterans have found themselves missing that sense of purpose they had while they were in the military. Equine therapy helps these individuals find a meaning, a responsibility and a purpose. From therapeutic riding to grooming to cleaning stalls, the program ultimately teaches veterans new responsibility, trust, discipline and self-awareness as well as communication through an unspoken connection to horses - otherwise known as the majestic animals.

"The connection between an equine and a human is unmatched in any other form of treatment. Horses are both pack and prey animals. So, the horses will make you earn their trust. Once that trust is earned the horse will rely on the veteran to keep him or her safe," Allen said. "This simple bond is only the beginning. These animals are 1000 plus pounds, yet they are very gentle and understanding. Their natural behavior is to feed off the energy of their surroundings," he added.

Kelly Bays, an instructor at the center, says that connection between a horse and humans can be instant.

"If the veteran is unstable then the horse will become unstable, but if the veteran is too over powering the horse will in turn try to overpower them. So they learn to communicate to each other what their needs are," Bays explained. "I remember a Veteran was becoming frustrated with the horse and we had to show him that the horse was just mirroring his feeling and mood. He could not believe that he was able to calm such a large animal. A light switch went on and he said he now understands why his wife and children react the way they do to him and it is in his control to step back and breathe and work as one with his family."

Many veterans who participates in the program are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anger, drugs, alcohol and Traumatic Brain Injuries. Allen and Bays both say while the therapy may not cure all that ails the veterans, equine therapy has proven to be an alternative to prescribed medications.

"I've worked with several veterans who have been able to stop taking medications that they have been taking for a long time," Bays said of some of the program's success stories. "The horses have taught them to trust and communicate again and have helped them to reenter their family and feel whole again. The center provides them a place where they can feel safe and enjoy life again for a few hours. I am a better person because they allow me to be part of their life," Bays added.

Staton, now a volunteer with the program, says the program has provided more support than she imagined.

"The fellowship and animals keep me coming back for more. I know when I'm there on Mondays, I can breathe and focus on whatever task is at hand. I have learned to relax and just focus on being in the present. This program gave me back my life."

For more information on REACH, logon to www.reachtrc.org