- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

CAMERON, N.C. (AP) - Watching Anna Twinney work with horses on a hot summer day with a glass of ice water in hand, thoughts of war and violence are nearly inconceivable.

But Twinney knows that such thoughts often are inescapable realities for veterans and active-duty military dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder - realities Twinney and Hearts 4 Heroes, a New York-based nonprofit that provides equine- and canine-assisted therapy for veterans and active-duty military, seek to change.

“The plan is not to trigger them,” Twinney, a natural horsemanship clinician and trainer, said of the nine veterans, one military spouse and one active-duty member of the U.S. Army working and learning at the H4H clinic at Gossamer Farms in Cameron this weekend. “The plan is to empower them. That’s what I’m here to do.”

And as Chicago resident Charles Schletz, a retired dog handler for the U.S. Marines, stepped into the pen with Bear, one of the many horses with which the group worked, the sense of empowerment was palpable.

“It was awesome,” Schletz said after a lengthy, entirely non-verbal conversation with Bear. “It was a wild feeling.”

Twinney, a former police officer in the United Kingdom trained in handling sexual abuse cases, said the combination of a head-on collision, overwhelming work-related stress and a love of her horse guided her toward teaching people how to communicate with and learn from horses.

“The horse teaches you to be in the moment,” Twinney said. “You cannot be in the past or the future. It’s about aligning the mind, body and spirit.”

Using little more than eye contact, breathing and body language, Twinney is able to tell a horse to stop, come, change speed, change direction and more.

Tyler Harmon, an active-duty working dog handler for the U.S. Army, was a quick study when it came to working with Colm, a 3-year-old colt.

“It was great to watch him do what I asked,” Harmon said. “(Working with a horse) gives you more knowledge about yourself. It makes you think, and it can help you fix issues.”

H4H President Key Burns said the weekend was all about allowing veterans and active-duty military dealing with PTSD to explore themselves, their feelings and their relationships in a safe, private environment.

“We let them brush and groom the horses,” Burns said. “We let them play games. It creates an intimacy, a bond of trust, things that they can take home with them. Horses communicate non-verbally, and sometimes veterans don’t want to talk.”

Sherry Lyerly-Tarner, a licensed professional counselor who works with H4H, agreed that animal therapy gives veterans an outlet to cope with trauma that human interaction cannot replicate.

“It’s one of the great things that happens here,” Lyerly-Tarner said. “These people get an opportunity to work through triggers, anxieties, concerns, without having to sit down and talk about it, without words.”

Horse whispering, as Twinney called her work, relies solely on nonverbal communication cues such as hand gestures, eye contact and posture, and Twinney said focusing on how they communicate without words can give veterans valuable insight into how they react and respond to different situations.

“If they can learn to influence their responses rather than have their reactions owning them,” Twinney said, “they can take that into their everyday life. It’s magical. It’s powerful.”

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Information from: The Sanford Herald, http://www.sanfordherald.com

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