United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Brain Injured Vets Benefit from "Horses for Heroes" Rehabilitation
Occupational therapist Marcia Cushman leads Veteran Craig through warm-up exercises.
Occupational therapist Marcia Cushman leads Veteran Craig through warm-up exercises.

Craig, 39, and Loren, 25, are once again clad in helmets and ready for action. This time, though, there's no gunfire, blistering heat, or battle plan. These days, Craig and Loren, Veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom sit high in the saddle, participants in a therapeutic pilot program called "Horses for Heroes." The Veterans were ideal candidates for the program: Craig had back, hip, and thigh injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI); and Loren had back, shoulder, and lower leg injuries, PTSD, and moderate brain injury.

"We've been working with the disabled population and horses for 12 years now and we were impressed with how quickly these two young men responded and the progress they made in a short time," said Marcia Cushman, occupational therapist and registered therapeutic riding instructor.

It was pure luck that Craig and Loren became the first Horses for Heroes participants from the VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics (VA SORCC). The booths for VA SORCC and Stable Hands, Inc., a Horses for Heroes chapter, were across from each other at a Veterans' appreciation event in May. Staff at VA SORCC had already been considering animal-assisted therapy for their patients. When they met representatives from Horses for Heroes, both sides recognized an opportunity for Craig and Loren, patients at VA SORCC.

"We identified them as Vets with TBI and related chronic pain issues and in talking with the therapist, we thought they'd be good candidates," said Christopher Petrone, LCSW, Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) Program Manager for VA SORCC. Because Horses for Heroes is run by a nonprofit with both a small staff and budget, VA SORCC volunteered only two Veterans for a trial run.

For six weeks, Craig and Loren rode horses at the thousand-acre Double H Ranch in nearby Yreka, CA. They strengthened their bodies, memory, and problem-solving skills while emotionally recovering from their combat experiences by building trust and relationships with the animals and with each other. "We had them work together. There was a lot of interaction between the two. They could say, 'Where were you? What happened to you?'" said Cushman, the occupational therapist. She worked with Craig and Loren, along with a group of volunteers, including a Vietnam Veteran. Veteran presence in the Horses for Heroes volunteer base is a vital part of the program, according to Cushman.

"The guys were very out of shape," Cushman said. "One used to spend 22 hours a day in bed because he was depressed, and the other had a lot of hip and back pain." She said the first time one of the Veterans had to walk a horse to the end of the arena, "we weren't sure we were going to get him back because it was so painful for him to move."

Volunteers teach Veteran Loren basic riding skills in a therapy session
Volunteers teach Veteran Loren basic riding skills in a therapy session.

Therapy included grooming and warming up with the horses, learning how to put on the heavy Western-style saddle, and developing basic riding skills using an obstacle course in an arena and short trail rides on the Double H property.

Craig originally registered a 7 out of 10 on a pain scale. He reported that his pain level decreased to a 3 for up to 45 minutes after attending therapy sessions. "The only time I didn't feel pain was when I was riding in the saddle," said Craig. Cushman said the pain management was possible because of pressure-relieving posture while sitting on the horse. Another reason both Veterans felt relief was that riding gave their brains a break from the pain because horseback riding requires a great amount of focus. "It's about being in the moment rather than focusing on the pain," said Petrone, the OEF/OIF program manager.

Loren also suffered from short-term memory problems. "When he started coming here, he said, 'I'll forget what I did by the time I get to the car,'" said Cushman. "But by the fourth session, he came in saying, 'I know what to do,' carrying out the whole grooming sequence," she said. "It was very rewarding to work with these two guys. They appreciated it tremendously, thanking us over and over again."

The Horses for Heroes program will begin again in September for another eight-week session, with Craig and Loren once again saddling up. Up to two more Veterans will join them, depending on fundraising success. VA SORCC will help offset some costs by using OEF/OIF pain management funds.

"We're excited that the Veterans are excited," said Petrone. "They left that experience feeling hopeful and optimistic. They're looking forward to doing it again."

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer