Veterans find therapy in horses with Horses & Heroes Florida program
When Harold Trieber was growing up in Massachusetts, he didn’t have much interaction with horses. And when he did, things didn’t always go well.
When he was taken on horseback once as a child, he said his horse had overturned. If he came out more or less unscathed, the experience did not make him impatient to get back in the saddle.
Until recently, that is. Trieber, who served in the Air Force from 1953 to 1961, became involved with Horses & Heroes of Southeast Florida.
The program, based in Palm City but open to people across the region, is intended to empower military veterans facing post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional issues – or even those who just need a break from the stress of the everyday world – a chance to stop and smell the hay.
When the program started earlier this year, groups of about eight veterans met twice a week with a psychotherapist and a horse specialist. About the first hour of the sessions was spent talking about what was going on in their lives.
Next, participants would spend time with the horses, eventually learning to bridle and walk them.
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Trieber admitted that horses intimidated him at first, until he got to know them.
“Horses are something else,” Trieber said. “We are learning about them. They are learning about us.… What was once a 1,000 pound animal that could run over me has become a friend of mine.”
Wayne Teegardin, president of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, also participated this year. He says he learned a lot, especially the nervousness felt by horses because they can sometimes fall prey to large predators.
“Everyone enjoyed the experience,” he said.
Karen Woodbury, the licensed equine specialist who has worked with Horses & Heroes, said reactions like those from Trieber and Teegardin are not uncommon.
“What we know about horses is that they make you feel really good,” said Woodbury. “Working with horses helps veterans reconnect and relearn how to relate.”
Woodbury has teamed up with psychotherapist Marie Ferri for about five years to provide a similar service to different groups, including minors and people working to overcome substance abuse issues. Although what they do is sometimes described as “horse assisted therapy,” Woodbury believes that “therapy” can conjure up negative images that don’t match what they are actually doing.
As well as helping people build relationships and camaraderie, Woodbury said being around horses just seems to bring out the best in people.
“I have known the best ‘me’ ever because of the horses and the work we do,” she said.
Frank Libuti, CEO of Horses & Heroes, is working on the statutes and statutes so that the group can be recognized as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit.
Obtaining this designation would aid the group’s fundraising efforts, so that it can continue to offer its services free of charge to participants.
The group plans to hold a “meet and greet” event at Summerwood Stables in Palm City, where the horses are kept, later this month.
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In January, Libuti said participants will have the option to participate in sessions two or three times a week for six to eight weeks.
Ultimately, the goal is to get to the point where at least some of the participants can get on the horses and ride.
So why are horses as opposed to some other type of animal?
Tom Brown, the group’s public relations and events coordinator, said people with emotional support dogs can sit at home and watch TV. With the horses, the participants have little choice but to go out and meet the horses on their lawn.
Additionally, Brown said horses are well suited to human emotions.
“It takes time,” Brown said. “If a horse feels danger or fear, he will react to it.”
About 30 people participated from January to April of this year. Horses & Heroes hosted an open house last weekend at the Hobe Sound Farmers Market which attracted around 25-30 people interested in learning more about the program.
Libuti hopes the group grows as more people hear about its potential benefits.
“We want to sell this to the community,” he said. “I hope we have people to volunteer to help us.”
Libuti said the program was well suited because horses are social animals, most comfortable living in herds. Veterans, too, are used to the “bond of brotherhood” forged by military service.
Libuti, a retired Marine Lieutenant General whose career has included time as a platoon commander in Vietnam and post 9/11 counterterrorism work with many prestigious missions in between, doesn’t mince his words. words to describe what Horses & Heroes is.
“We are trying, in simple terms, to create a healing environment,” he said. “There is something almost magical happening.… There is magic happening between the veteran and the horse.”
More information is available by contacting Libuti at [email protected]
In the 1998 film, “The Horse Whisperer”, Robert Redford’s character described himself as someone who “helps horses with human problems”.
Horses & Heroes offers a variation on this theme. It is a program where horses help people with human problems.
In a complicated and stressful world, there is nothing to say “neigh”.
This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him by email at [email protected] or at 772-232-5424.