Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center
Equine-assisted therapy helps Vets with PTSD
Afghanistan and Iraq Army Veteran Tyrone Motley relaxed into the empty carriage seat, took the reins and so skillfully steered the horse around the ring that onlookers couldn’t believe it was his first time.
“It was awesome,” said Motley, beaming after his turn at carriage driving at BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center in Harvard, Ill. “I was comfortable and confident; it was fun.”
Driving a carriage, and later that night riding a horse for the first time, were steps toward recovery for the Indianapolis resident, who traveled far from home to seek treatment at Lovell FHCC in North Chicago, Ill., for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The therapeutic riding session at BraveHearts was just one part of a 35-day residential treatment program designed to help Veterans like Motley recover and get back to living life fully.
“I’m getting skills so I can go out by myself in a crowd,” Motley said. “I’m learning breathing and coping skills so I can transition successfully back into being a civilian.”
Lovell FHCC recreational therapists have long appreciated the value of using horses to help Veterans coping with mental and physical health challenges and have been bringing long-term care residents, as well as mental health patients, to BraveHearts for the past seven years, said Suzanne Brunner, PTSD recreational therapist at Lovell FHCC.
“It fills them with a sense of pride that ‘I did it,’ and a sense of accomplishment they get out of being able to do this, to get on a horse,” Brunner said. “Often they haven’t done it before, or they rode when they were a child, and it was something that got left behind. Being on this very powerful animal, or even just being around the horses, rekindles their sense of freedom.”
Brunner accompanied seven PTSD patients of varying ages on a cool autumn night to BraveHearts, where they were met by instructors, certified therapists and trained volunteers. The Veterans broke into smaller groups; some inside to the stalls to tack up the horses, others to outside corrals for activities that included getting in the ring to handle a formerly wild mustang.
While Motley waited for his turn to drive the carriage, he told a story about what he thought his life was going to be. “I wanted to make the Army a career,” he said. “I loved the Army. I felt like a superhero in uniform.”
Instead of 20 years in the Army, he had to get out in 2012 after a decade of service and seek treatment for PTSD. Motley said his mental health therapist recommended Lovell FHCC’s PTSD treatment program. “I did my research, and talked it over with my family before coming here,” he said.
Motley was not the only one in the group a long way from home. Dallas resident and Army Veteran Mitchell Reno also expressed gratitude for the chance to go to BraveHearts and praised the treatment he received at Lovell FHCC.
“This is an incredible PTSD program,” said Reno, who served four years in the infantry. He also spent 10 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland after he was injured in combat. The experienced rider said being back in the saddle reminded him of good times of riding in Texas.
Army Veteran Cecil Stroud stood in awe in a small paddock with BraveHearts Director of Operations Paddy McKevitt, who demonstrated free lunging and natural horsemanship with a spirited mustang before leaving the enclosure to allow Stroud a try. Under McKevitt’s instruction, Stroud slowly approached the horse and used body language to successfully direct it to follow him around the ring.
The Veterans leaned on the fence and listened intently as McKevitt explained that horses, being animals of prey, seek out a leader in the herd to follow. Horses have an uncanny ability to sense humans’ moods, McKevitt said, and will trust and respond to a confident, but passive, human leader.
“I loved it,” Stroud said. “It was the absolute best thing to date that I’ve done in the program.”
Veteran Chris Lerch agreed with Stroud that working with the mustang topped his experiences in the PTSD program to date. “The way the horse followed you and did what you said was amazing,” said Lerch, who deployed to Iraq twice in six years with the Marine Corps. “This is great. I’m really glad to be here. These people are awesome,” he said, referring to BraveHearts staff and volunteers.
Brunner brings Lovell FHCC PTSD patients to BraveHearts twice a month. She said it is personally rewarding and satisfying to see their progress.
“Teaching them to drive the carriage, to ride, showing them how to bond with these magnificent animals, they learn it’s not physical power that is important but trust… This helps them get back to who they are as individuals, beyond the PTSD,” Brunner said.
Before transferring to the PTSD program, Brunner brought Lovell FHCC Community Living Center Veterans, many with substantial physical limitations, to BraveHearts for equine-assisted therapy.
As outlined in a BraveHearts pamphlet, the stable has a range of adaptive equipment. Patients unable to use their hands can use equipment that allows them to control horses with their wrists. Patients unable to walk are helped into the saddle using a special lift apparatus – the Sure Hands Lift. Once they are in the saddle, the movement of the horse’s gait is similar to a human’s walking motion and strengthens core muscle groups.
Brunner has only the highest praise for BraveHearts, which serves hundreds of Veterans a year.
“The staff here have been very excited about working with our patients and have accommodated us completely, whether it’s working with us for scheduling, or giving us access to their kitchens so we can hold cookouts, and being willing to come to North Chicago to talk to our staff,” Brunner said.
BraveHearts is aligned with PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) Equine Services for Heroes, an organization that facilitates collaboration between VA medical centers and PATH International member centers, instructors and therapists to provide equine-assisted therapies and activities to Veterans.
BraveHearts has developed a longstanding relationship with several Department of Veterans Affairs Medical (VAMC) facilities, including the Milwaukee VAMC and Jesse Brown VAMC and Hines VA Hospital in Chicago. With the help of grant money, BraveHearts serves Veterans free of charge. Veterans are allowed to return to the stable as often as they wish to ride and/or take care of the horses.
For Motley, the outing to BraveHearts was therapeutic because of what the experience lacked: stress.
“It was relaxing … I wasn’t scared,” Motley said.
In place of panic, Motley felt pleased and proud. Before the night was over, he borrowed a smart phone to share with his 13-year-old daughter smiling photos of himself astride a horse.