This morning, I rode a horse for the third time in my life! Horses for Heroes is a program that helps Veterans connect with horses for riding and/or equine therapy programs. Today, they sponsored a “free ride” day. The Royal Stewart Indoor Arena, Iron Wheel Program was the local participant. Iron Wheel is an equine therapy program. I had contact with the facility prior to my injury. The social workers at the VA spent a half day there participating in team building exercises with the horses. Leizelle and Lisa are awesome facilitators. Much has changed in my life in the past year. This experience was totally different.
Horses are incredible animals! They can sense human emotions and read our body language. They are extremely responsive to their environment. They will “mirror” the emotional status of the human working with them. This is what makes them so useful as therapy animals. Horses are herd animals, they look for a leader and safety. The person working with a horse has to be aware of his/her emotional state and body language. A tremendous amount of communication with the horse is done silently. The horse’s responses provides feedback to the emotional state and behavior of the person working with them. If the person is angry or afraid, the horse will be also. Equine Therapy is used to help people with a variety of medical and mental health issues, including PTSD and TBI.
My experience today lasted a little over an hour. When I first arrived, the team greeted me warmly. I was a few minutes early, so I got to watch a group finish a team building exercise. They had to herd a horse over a low jump without talking. The horse was not impressed. Watching the group interact, you could see the dynamics. And you could see the horse respond to their increased frustration. The team eventually completed the task. The interesting part is even if they had not, they still succeeded. It’s the process not the result that is important.
The team asked me what I wanted to do today. I could choose between therapy problem solving exercises or riding. I wanted to learn how to groom the horse and try to ride. The horse I had enjoyed being brushed. She leaned into the strokes and was cooperative and calm. Cleaning the hooves was an interesting experience. First, I learned how to stand correctly in order to be able to respond to any movement of the horse. She played a little with bringing the hooves up. She knew I was inexperienced and decided to test me. I learned how to move gently along the leg, so the horse knew where I was and what I wanted and to cluck to get her to place her hoof in my hand. A horse’s hoof is heavier than it looks. It also takes more energy to get the packed dirt out of the hoof. The back legs are harder. They move differently and it is more difficult to get them into a good position to clean.
Riding was frightening at first. The sensation and view from a horse is totally different from the ground or a vehicle. I found it disorienting at first. It was difficult to make sense of the different sensory perspectives of touch, movement, vision, sound, and smell. I tended to stare at the horse’s head and was uncomfortable turning my head to look where I wanted to go. This is one of the keys of riding. Somehow, looking communicates the intention to the horse. Coordinating the neck reign with leg pressure was also hard for me. For safety, the horse was on a leading reign with a team member assisting. I had trouble with the horse trying to go into a trot. The increased speed also increased my discomfort and fear of falling. Lisa pointed out that I was tense. I was holding my breath often and breathing more shallow and fast. The horse sensed the tension in my legs and anxiety and responded. She was tense also and looking for the “threat.” We worked on relaxing my legs and breathing. As the team knew me before the accident, they noticed that overall I am more anxious and nervous now. It is true. With the increased sensory sensitivity and slowed cognition, I frequently feel bombarded and confused. I also have PTSD from past trauma. The injury triggers increased hypervigilence and startle response, which increases the anxiety. This communicated to the horse. I did not realize how tense and anxious I have been since the injury. It has become my “new normal.” I have noticed the increased PTSD symptoms and have been working to address them.
The experience today was incredible. I think equine therapy and/or riding would be a great addition to my recovery program for the TBI, and incidentally, the PTSD symptoms. If the horses can help me recognize and address the increased anxiety and tension, that would be such a blessing and improvement for my quality of life. Hopefully, it would also help with managing the sensory overload. I’m going to contact the Horses for Heroes program on Monday and apply for a scholarship to help with the cost.
I am exhausted tonight and looking forward to a good night’s sleep.