ARLINGTON, Va. – Grooming, saddling and riding a horse may not seem like the typical activities of a modern-day Soldier, but that’s exactly what some in the Army Recovery Care Program are doing as part of their adaptive reconditioning.
Equine programs are offered at several soldier recovery units, including Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston SRU, Texas; Fort Carson SRU, Colorado; and Fort Riley SRU, Kansas. They allow Soldiers to develop bonds with horses while caring for them. In some programs, they go horseback riding as well. All of the programs practice COVID-19 precautionary measures.
The JBSA adapting reconditioning program partnered with a stable to offer an equine therapy program. Participating Soldiers attend an instructional session and are taught how to groom horses and clean horseshoes. This time allows them to connect with the animals, said Angel Flores, adaptive reconditioning support specialist at the JBSA SRU.
They also learn to maneuver horses around a ring and may take them on rides with the instructors. Flores said that interaction with the horses is beneficial.
“The Soldiers are able to find peace,” he said.
He added that being with the horses and out in nature comforts many Soldiers.
Sgt. 1st Class Leonard Morgan, a Soldier assigned to the JBSA SRU, had never been on horseback before participating in the equine therapy program. Since he started, he’s ridden horses and been on trail rides. Morgan said the program fosters connections and mentioned that one horse remembers him when he visits.
“They pair you up with the horse and you bond with that horse all morning, all day,” he said.
The Fort Carson SRU offers two programs; one is located at the U.S. Air Force Academy Equestrian Center and operated by a nonprofit. Participating Soldiers learn to groom and work with the horses and ride them with the equine program leaders.
Marc Cattapan, adaptive reconditioning support specialist at the Fort Carson SRU, said that the second program is with a ranch. He explained that participating Soldiers work to develop relationships with horses that aid them in relaxing and checking in with their emotional and mental statuses. They communicate before and after working with the horses and participation related changes are observed, he said.
Horseback riding may be the goal, but grooming and caring for horses takes precedence because it aids Soldiers in reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and improving overall health, said Rachel Bennatt, recreation therapist at the Fort Carson SRU.
“Building companionship and relationship through time with the animal is the therapy that helps heal the deeper wounds of each Soldier,” Bennatt said.
Staff Sgt. Chanel Brock, a Soldier assigned to the Fort Carson SRU, said working with the horses at the U.S. Air Force Academy Stables helped her “disconnect from negative chatter and minute worries,” which can add up at times.
“I was able to connect in not only a singular way with my feelings but with those around me as well,” she said.
Brock said that the time she spent individually working with a horse named Tilly provided the most healing. She said she brushed and communicated with Tilly and forgot about everything but their connection.
“It gave me the healing comfort of quiet time and companionship…All without the noise and distraction of everything else,” she said. “All without words.”
Jill Sump, occupational therapist at the Fort Riley SRU, said that a ranch provides the horses, technology and environment for their equine program.
Sump said the equine program teaches skills through grooming and nonverbal communication. She explained that horses communicate in different styles and they must work together on communication to determine what they might need. The Soldier earns the horse’s trust and respect through grooming, noticing things that require attention, sensing the horse’s feelings and relaxing, she said. They also discuss their own emotional states and become cognizant of their current feelings and environment, she said.
Sgt. Dylan Lipskey, a Soldier assigned to the Fort Riley SRU, learned about horses and horseback riding through the program. It also taught him something else.
“Since being in the program, it’s kind of taught me that there is more to life than there was in the beginning [when he started the program] for me and it’s given me a lot of happiness,” he said.
For Lipskey, the best thing about the program is working with the horses. In fact, he said he loves horseback riding, but he would forgo it and just spend time around the animals and groom them, if it came to that.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Maldonado is also a Soldier assigned to the Fort Riley SRU. He appreciates the chance to be around the horses at the ranch and thinks it’s a fine opportunity for Soldiers who are transitioning back to duty or to veteran status to gain knowledge and grow.
“I just really liked being with the animal and forming that bond,” Maldonado said. “It reminds me a lot of the bonds we form with Soldiers.”
Maldonado said that the program provided him with hope and courage and, now that he’s finished it, he feels increased confidence that he can make it.