- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2009

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Blair sits tall in a saddle that has been used by soldiers since before World War I. Today he is riding Bud, a jet-black horse whose usual job is leading caissons through the somber funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery With his crew cut and his Marine Corps windbreaker, Sgt. Blair, 34, looks every bit the part of a soldier as he rides down the path at Arlington’s Fort Myer. When he dismounts, though, he grabs a walking stick with a Marines logo on it and walks unevenly to the stables.

Sgt. Blair was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in May 2006. His weekly visits to Fort Myer are part of his rehabilitation to rebuild his legs.

He is among the soldiers who have been taking part in the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon Equine Assisted Programs. The program was started at Fort Myer in 2006 by Larry Pence and Mary Jo Beckman, two local former military members and riding enthusiasts.

While therapeutic riding has long been a treatment for special-needs children, the idea of putting injured soldiers together with soldiers and horses from the Army’s Old Guard was a new one, Mr. Pence says.

Mr. Pence, a retired Army sergeant major, says about 100 soldiers - many of whom are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the District - have come through the program. Many participants are amputees who benefit from riding because horses have a gait that is similar to a human’s walk.

“Riding helps retrain the muscles,” Mr. Pence says. “It accelerates the adaptability to the use of a prosthetic and helps the injured recover more readily.”

The program provides intangible benefits, too. Being out in the fresh air, controlling a 1,000-pound animal, working toward a goal and physical activity all contribute to recovery.

“It is difficult to measure the emotional part,” Mr. Pence says, “but it is important, and we see it. There is a sense of accomplishment that can dramatically improve a patient’s attitude.”

Sgt. Blair says riding has given him lots of those benefits.

“I had been on a horse a handful of times in the past,” he says. “I like the idea of being able to do everything I was able to do before. It has helped, absolutely. Every time I get on a horse, I feel I am standing a little taller. It works all the muscles, especially the core muscles, and this is really important. I am going to keep riding. It is fun, and it is important.”

Walking alongside Sgt. Blair and two other soldiers today are a dozen members of the Old Guard. The precision they usually use to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns or ride through the cemetery is still there, but they are a little more relaxed for this job and a chance to help a veteran look toward life rather than participating in a ceremony of death.

“We usually take part in eight funerals a day,” says Spc. Benjamin Nelms, an Old Guard member. “This is a chance to help someone get back on their feet.”

Mr. Pence says an important part of the healing process comes when the injured soldiers spend time with the Old Guard soldiers who walk alongside the horse with them, offering training, assistance and, sometimes, just a friendly ear.

“At many therapeutic riding places, you see side-walkers who are women or old guys like me,” Mr. Pence says. “But the people helping in this program are [the riders’] peers. It is soldiers helping soldiers. When they are out of the clinic, they will talk about things. Sometimes it is serious stuff, but sometimes just sports and music. It really exemplifies that soldiers take care of their own.”

Capt. Mariah Kochavi, 29, has been taking part in therapeutic riding at Fort Myer since suffering a stroke more than a year ago. She says it has been good for her rehabilitation.

“It is good for my balance and improves my mood,” says Capt. Kochavi, who is recovering at Walter Reed.

Similarly, Sgt. Seyward McKinney, also at Walter Reed, is using therapeutic riding as part of her stroke recovery, says her father, Bill McKinney. Sgt. McKinney, formerly an operating room technician in Iraq, had brain arteriovenous malformation and suffered a stroke three years ago while at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash. Speech therapy, riding and training a service dog are all part of Sgt. McKinney’s recovery. On this day, she is working on the mechanics of sitting tall in the saddle and posting, English riding style.

“It has been really hard,” Mr. McKinney says. “Seyward was a lifelong athlete. She would work 12-hour days and play in three women’s soccer leagues and swim and lift weights.”

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has helped get similar therapeutic riding programs for soldiers started around the country, Mr. Pence says. In 2007, Mr. Pence and Ms. Beckman met with the secretary of veterans affairs to discuss how to implement the program at various Army bases. So far, the Fort Myer program is the only one operating on a base.

“One of the ways we sold it to Army officials is that it has no cost,” Mr. Pence says. “The soldiers donate their time, and the horses are already here.”


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