By Ben Sherman, Fort Sill PAODecember 1, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. (Dec. 1, 2011) -- Horseback riding can be fun recreation, and it is also great therapy for wounded warriors at Spirithorse Chisholm Trail Center near Comanche.
Jan Smith, Spirithorse owner and equine therapist, established the program in May to provide therapy for Soldiers suffering from the trauma of combat.
"For some of the Soldiers who are familiar with horses, it's a way to get back in touch with that, and for those who are not familiar with this it is a way to have a new experience. And you know, these horses just enjoy being with the Soldiers," she said.
Smith started working with children with disabilities in 2007 and found that horses were good therapy for children. So it was a logical progression when she decided to start helping wounded warriors through a program she calls "Horses for Heroes."
"I've always had my horses," Smith added. "It's definitely my passion, and my husband feels the same way. We just enjoy being with the Soldiers and it is our honor to have them here. I figured that I could do this and give back to these Soldiers. And that's when I found my niche."
Smith started working with Dr. Tina Small, a pain management doctor at Reynolds Army Community Hospital, who works with Soldiers in the Warrior Transition Unit, or WTU, at Fort Sill. They both believe that working with horses has a positive effect on Soldiers dealing with trauma.
"Medical facilities are recognizing the value of equine and animal therapy because it's known that therapies like this make a person calmer and more relaxed. This lowers the blood pressure and means they don't have to take as much medicine." Small said.
Sgt. James Boyce, 609th Forward Support Company, 168th Brigade Support Battalion, was the first Soldier to come to the Spirithorse center. For him the horses have been a positive influence.
"Jan has such a big heart and Doctor Small, too. It's great to not always be in an office," Boyce said. "When you go into an office and talk to a doctor, sometimes it's just not calm. For people with anxiety and pain, to be able to come out here, is great. When I pass through those gates, it's no phone, no distractions, no nothing."
"I'm free, my mind is free, and I get to be with the horses," Boyce continued. "Even if I don't ride them, I can just walk around and not really think about the military and just focus on myself. Best of all, the horses don't judge you."
Smith has eight horses that she uses in the program, but since she is currently the only certified equine therapist, she usually has only one or two horses in the arena at a time so she can keep an eye on things.
Smith watched as Sgt. Paul Hill placed a blanket, then the saddle on one of the horses. For Hill, "Horses for Heroes" gives him a chance to relax and reduce some of the stresses he feels from to his injuries.
"I just like coming out here and being with the horses. I love working with them. I wish the Army still used horses on a regular basis," Hill said with a chuckle.
Hill previously served with the Marines and then enlisted in the Army, where he was working with a unit retrieving tanks and trucks damaged by improvised explosive device, or IED, blasts in Afghanistan.
After Hill finished saddling up the horse, Smith came over to give him some directions.
"Sergeant Hill, I'm going to let you walk this one for a while," Smith said. "Just walk alongside him and go real slow."
After leading the horse around the arena, Hill said to Smith, "If I had known the horses needed work on their hooves, I would have brought my tools."
"Well, maybe you can bring them when you come out next week," Smith responded.
Small stood by the arena gate and watched as other Soldiers worked with Smith. To her, the time these Soldiers spend with the horses is so much more than just physical exercise.
"It helps them relate to each other. They all may be in the same unit, but they really didn't talk to each other or have anything in common, but now they do," Small said, "It gives them a more common ground other than the battlefield and going to the doctor's office. It gives them something good and positive to relate to when they talk to each other," she added.
"When you're injured all of the things add up, even the smallest things. These guys in the WTU, you almost have to literally drag them out of their rooms," said Master Sgt. Christopher Mackey. As a Soldier in the Warrior Transition Unit, Mackey knows firsthand the stresses of injury.
"I finally got out of my shell, and it took about four years to do that, to get out and start socializing. I'm hoping that these guys don't take that long, and that we have enough programs through MWR and organizations like Spirithorse, that we can come out and enjoy. These are things that can help Soldiers cope and get themselves back where they need to be mentally and physically," Mackey added.
Smith has plans to build an indoor arena so her therapy work can go on no matter what the Oklahoma weather may bring.
"We just have to have an enclosed arena to be able to work in the winter and especially in the summer. If we have an indoor facility, we can open our program to provide more opportunities to help the Soldiers. When these Soldiers come out here they can just forget everything else that's bothering them at the time. It just gives them a refreshing experience, to look forward to something positive for the next week," Smith said. "This isn't the cure-all but it is definitely better than any medication that I could prescribe for anybody.
"However, I hope it's addictive, and they become dependent on it," Smith added with a smile.