Horse sense helps veterans move forward

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Geronimo stands with a buddy at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Ann Collins)

When someone returns from military service with wounds seen and unseen, we may not know how to help. Fortunately, horses do.

This might seem counterintuitive, considering how many battles we humans have ridden horses into over the millennia, but humanity’s partnership with the horse continues to evolve. The physical tasks of caring for horses get veterans outdoors, moving, and doing something tangible that makes sense. But it’s more than that.

Horses are nonjudgmental, profoundly empathetic, and delightfully individualistic even though they are also social creatures. A horse may not comprehend the particulars of what a veteran has been through, but you can bet that horse knows how he feels. The horse likely has war stories of his own: of trauma, injury, self-preservation, and survival. When horses allow you into their world, the healing goes both ways.

Jockey Red Pollard said in the movie “Seabiscuit” that he, the trainer, and the owner — three men of very different backgrounds, each with his own demons — didn’t take a broken-down, underdog horse and fix him. “He fixed us … and I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.”

The therapeutic riding center where I serve as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, facilitates just this sort of work with horses and veterans. We’re having a special event called Stock the Barn 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, to raise funds to do even more. Let me tell you about a few of our equine warriors.

Pirate, a big, red retired racehorse with incredibly kind eyes, could have spent his retirement at a stud farm but opted to come to Summit instead. He’s got a host of aches and pains left over from his racing days. When I see him walking across the pasture, I hear him say, with each step, “I’m moving … I’m moving.” This summer, as I dealt with some of my own pains, he would regularly ask: “Are you moving, too?” A horse holds you accountable like no one else does.

• When I first met Geronimo, the young mustang reminded me of James Dean … a wildly handsome rebel without a cause who felt others just didn’t “get” him. His resistance to cooperating with director Allison Wheaton, along with a few scuffles with the other horses, frequently landed him in timeout, but she continued to work with him. The skills Geronimo needed to gain, Allison says, are the same skills some veterans with PTSD need to be able to go to the grocery store. Veterans can see themselves in a mustang’s hypervigilance. Last winter, just by his presence, Geronimo comforted a volunteer through a stressful work transition. Now he’s connecting with our veterans. His journey still has its ups and downs; progress is rarely linear. They “get” him.

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Biff, like the veterans he works with, has had to work on learning new ways of responding to the world around him. (Photo by Meg Miller)

• Then there’s Biff. The Gypsy Vanner joined us this summer and proceeded to leave bite marks and bruises on just about everyone before being put in a pen by himself, but within sight of the rest of the herd. Somehow or other, Lakota — another young mustang adopted from the Bureau of Land Management who has been doing some serious training of his own — and Geronimo let themselves into the pen with Biff. The three of them have been hanging out without incident, and all three have been working with veterans. Biff has decided he wants to keep learning.

If a veteran you know is struggling to find a way forward, there’s probably a horse out there who needs a buddy, too. Let’s leave no one behind.

Animal Wise: Back-to-school blues

Longing - Photo by Anne Worner on Trendhype : CC BY-SA

“Longing” (Photo by Anne Worner on Trendhype / CC BY-SA)

The school buses rumble through the neighborhood, marking a change in routine for kids, parents, and drivers. As fleeting as it seems, summer vacation is just long enough to break the sleeping, waking, coming, and going habits of the school year. This shift back to academic-year reality affects our animal companions, too.

My household has no school bus riders, but it does contain one college professor who has been home all summer. In preparation for classes starting this week, she began to spend more time on campus. On Wednesday, when she wasn’t home by 4:30 p.m., the dog and the older of our two cats parked themselves by the garage door and waited. (The younger cat, who hasn’t lost her street smarts, apparently decided to play it cool and take in some chipmunk theater from a window.)

“She’ll be home soon,” I told the two worriers. “She’s back at work. It’s that time of year.” Indeed, she was home within half an hour, and the next day they weren’t as concerned.

Animals who have enjoyed daytime human company all summer, and perhaps more outings to dog parks and pet-friendly cafes, may suddenly find themselves alone for hours at a time. The fact that it’s the same routine as last spring or last year may not register in the stress of the present moment … and the present moment is where our animal friends are experts at dwelling.

They may be sad. They may be anxious. They may be bored. They may be all of the above. You may be looking at a furniture-scratching, throw-pillow-chewing, garbage-raiding, howling start to the school year. Animals thrive on routine (granted, some do more than others), so any changes to it may be met with resistance … or at least some sad looks as you’re heading out the door. Even cats who deny any interest in human affairs are not above a reproachful gaze.

So now that school is in, what can you do to ease the transition? Here are some suggestions from the ASPCA and my own experience:

• Give the animals a treat every time you leave the house so they associate your departure with something pleasant.

• Stuff the treats in a rubber toy such as a Kong to give them something to work on.

• Leave a radio on low volume; I like NPR for its calm voices and classical music, but if there is a particular kind of music your animal companion is used to or seems to like, go with that.

• Tell them where you’re going and when you expect someone will be home.  They understand more than you think.

• Touch base during the day. You don’t even need a phone. Calmly bring your animal to mind, silently tell him you love him, and remind him of when you (or someone else in the household) will be home. Again — they get it.

• Keep school backpacks closed and/or away from curious noses. You don’t want your animal companions to get into something harmful, and even if the dog actually does eat your son’s homework, no teacher will believe it.

Here’s to a great year of learning with the animals in our lives.