- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Andre served four years in the Marines, but that didn’t mean Dutch was going to take any orders from him. Horses aren’t impressed by the number of stripes on a sleeve.

To get Dutch to follow his leadership would require something other than rank. It would take a relationship.

During the last 10 weeks, that is exactly what has developed through a new program at Rocking Horse Ranch: a partnership between horses and heroes.

Equine Services for Heroes incorporates horses into the healing process for veterans and active duty military and their families. The program, from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, uses equine therapy to help participants who may suffer from physical or mental issues such as traumatic brain injuries or post traumatic stress disorder.

“The idea of therapy or talking directly about PTSD for a lot of people isn’t what they’re interested in,” Rocking Horse Ranch Executive Director Malaika Albrecht said. “What we find is in training horses, there’s a lot of self-discovery that happens.”

Veterans recruited for Equine Services for Heroes spend about two hours a week at the ranch. Here, they learn lessons in herd dynamics and the body language of horses and practice ground skills such as leading and lunging (a method used to exercise a horse or teach it without a rider on its back).

“Pretty quickly we ask them to go from meeting the horse and grooming the horse to training and being in the ring with one that has no halter,” Albrecht said.

The program is offered free to veterans and their families through a $7,500 grant from The Grainger Foundation. Grainger’s Neil Zingler was inspired to support the program after seeing the documentary film “Riding My Way Back,” which tells the story of how a once suicidal soldier found healing from working with a horse.

“I immediately gravitated to it because I’m a veteran,” Zingler, market manager of W.W. Grainger’s Greenville location, said. “I could tell the difference that they were making in people’s lives.”

Among about a half dozen veterans who signed on the initial session are some who have loved horses since childhood. Others, like Gerri Nugent, have hardly ever sat on a saddle.

In this program, that does not matter. No riding is involved, which makes Equine Services for Heroes accessible to any service members or veterans, regardless of ability.

“Riding is a different element,” Albrecht, an equine specialist in mental health and learning, said. “It’s a different relationship with a horse. To have horse accept you as a leader is a much different experience than to be on top of him just having a trail ride or a pony ride.”

This experience focuses on other aspects of horsemanship, from long lining (also known as ground driving) to round penning, in which the horse is not connected to a lunge line but can move at liberty in a round pen. Sessions end with grooming.

“I love the grooming part. I have a running monologue going on with the horse,” Nugent said as she brushed her partner horse, Dakota. “It’s relaxing. There’s no pressure.”

Even after several weeks, Nugent, a Persian Gulf War veteran, still is a little apprehensive about putting her hands near Dakota’s mouth.

“There are certain parts of animals and people and machinery that you don’t put your hands near,” she said, laughing.

Even Andre, who has loved horses since he learned to ride as a teenager at summer camp, was a little nervous when he first started working with Dutch.

“You’re not as open to go toward a horse,” he said. “If you saw a dog, you’d be like ‘Oh, hey, come here puppy.’ But it’s completely different when you’ve got a 1,200-pound animal and you’re trying to get him to do something you want him to.”

In time, Andre has gained confidence. He plans to remain in the program during the next session as a volunteer and would like to eventually become certified as an equine specialist.

Nugent too, has become more sure of herself around horses. During a recent grooming session, she used a pick to remove dirt and debris lodged in Dakota’s hooves.

Beginning at the front, Dakota slowly lifted one leg at a time for the inspection.

“You have to tell him to do things in a certain way,” Nugent said, “and that’s how I am.”

This is not a coincidence. Rocking Horse Ranch uses personality tests to help pair participants and their horse partners. While people are allowed to choose the horse they work with, nearly all opt for one with whom they have common ground.

“Interacting with horses tells us a lot about who you are. They’re great mirrors for a lot of different reasons,” Albrecht said. “They show exactly how they feel, so if you are being passive, a horse won’t respect your leadership. If you’re being aggressive, the horse is going to respond with fear.”

Finding the right approach with Dakota has given Nugent insight into other relationships as well.

“Really it’s a working relationship,” she said. “It helps me practice with people, too. It’s training yourself. If you’re going to train an animal, you have to train yourself first.”

Equine Services for Heroes is designed to help participants enhance skills including leadership, communication, expressing emotions and using positive coping strategies.

“When they learn all this, they really learn skill sets,” Albrecht said. “People intuitively start to understand life lessons that are happening in connection with horses that are applicable to everyday living, and I think that’s beautiful.”

In the round pen with Dutch, Andre was able to use subtle motions to get a large animal to move in the desired direction. After a few minutes of trotting in circles around Andre, Dutch was ready to “join up,” or come to the middle to be with his leader. His muzzle low to indicate submission, Dutch began following Andre like a puppy.

The message, Andre said, was obvious. “(The horse was communicating) ‘I’m going to go with you no matter what because you’re my buddy, and we’re going to stay together.” It was Andre’s favorite moment and one that those who train horses don’t take for granted.

“It doesn’t always happen like that,” Albrecht said. “When it does, it’s very humbling, thousand pound animal deciding that, ‘I trust you. You are a worthy leader.’”

___

Information from: The Daily Reflector, https://www.reflector.com


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