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VA Eastern Colorado advances ‘Healing with Horses’ in caregiver support

Army Veteran Daniel Luther discusses equine-assisted therapy
Army Veteran Daniel Luther discusses equine-assisted therapy Aug. 17 at Holistic Therapeutic Equine Center in El Paso County, Colorado. Along with his wife, Luther was participating in the therapy for Veteran-caregiver dyads, an innovation project led by the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System caregiver support team.

“Something magical happened here,” said Lisa Coble, leaving stables Aug. 17 in northern El Paso County. She had spent four mornings over the summer at a 41-acre ranch on Black Forest Road, where ponderosa pines yield to the high plains.

Coble was participating in equine-assisted therapy for Veteran-caregiver dyads, an innovation project led by the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS) caregiver support team. The team offers resources to individuals looking after a Veteran’s health and wellness.

With a circle of unfolded chairs in the stables, a social worker and nurse led check-ins for the summer rotation’s final three-hour session. Ranch volunteers were preparing four American paint horses for unmounted activities in an adjacent 100-by-180-foot enclosed training arena.

“The first session, she was really down and felt lost,” said Coble, who entered the arena with mother and Army Veteran Josephine Dixon. “One of her goals was to get her smile back. Within the first half hour, her demeaner changed. She engaged more. She was all smiles.”

“I didn’t think I needed anything,” said Dixon, diagnosed with cancer 30 years after remission. “But this experience brought something out. It helped my daughter and I communicate better.”

Dixon, 84, had been overwhelmed by the horses, specifically their massive heads. She first walked with Shorty, a miniature horse with a braided mane. She stepped onto sand softened with natural oils. With the right shoes, she felt steady enough to hold the leads of the full-size horses trained in Western dressage.

“I’m now quite comfortable with the whole thing,” said Dixon. “I didn’t know you could talk to these huge animals, and they’d respond like this.” At times, sessions involve a herd of horses, when everyone must effectively face their fears and obstacles to communicate with a collective calm, knowing the horses would reflect human emotions in their responsiveness.

Dixon served in the early 1960s on the Japanese island of Okinawa. As an Army medic, she recalls the trepid faces of troops preparing for Vietnam. Army Veteran Daniel Luther, whose 30 years of service included combat in Vietnam and the Gulf War, was also in the training arena.

Luther, 76, was recovering from back surgery. The retired command sergeant major says a soldier’s body takes a beating after a couple of decades. Veterans often face years of high physical and mental intensity, compounded by tough transitions.

“When you’re in combat, your life gets tense—your mental capacity gets tense,” said Luther. “When you get home, you need to make a living, so it’s one tense situation to another. You need things that bring down the pressure, so you can live your life.”

“This is a very relaxing situation,” said Luther, watching his wife of 47 years run with a horse, continuing to buck her initial reluctance to get near them. She later attempted an unmounted side pass, asking a horse to walk sideways. “In a way it tests to see how you’re changing.”

“The emotions you put out and the feedback you get back from the horses, it’s immediate,” said Justin Cobler, VA ECHCS registered nurse, explaining how the spontaneousness keeps everyone engaged. “It’s all very natural and off the cuff—things just kind of come out.”

The caregiver support team’s innovation project got a boost last summer when Jennifer Auger, VA ECHCS licensed clinical social worker, connected with a colleague leading equine-assisted therapy for Veterans recovering from substance abuse in VA San Diego Health Care System. They partnered to tailor that curriculum for caregiver support.

Within three months, the VA Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Program granted nearly $30,000 to certify VA ECHCS social workers in equine therapy and acquire facilities in El Paso County and Boulder County. The program is designed to accelerate employee-inspired innovations.

“This is, hands down, the favorite part of our job,” said Auger, wrapping up her eighth therapy rotation since receiving the innovation funding. “The transformations we’ve seen are so profound. They feel safe to be vulnerable. Emotions come out. Trust is established. Horses have their own ability to reach out and form a bridge to other beings.”

“It’s a blessing to provide our facility and horses,” said Cindy Rau-Sobotka, who bought the El Paso County ranch in 2003, ahead of retiring from the Air Force. A lieutenant colonel fighting cancer quickly benefitted from a horse’s friendship. Rau-Sobotka opened Holistic Therapeutic Equine Center with that stallion’s offspring.

“It’s Veterans helping Veterans,” said Rau-Sobotka. Her ranch volunteers were also Veterans. “We’re in here working with Veterans to help them heal emotionally and become more self-aware and confident and improve their communication.”

For their final group exercise in the ground-breaking “Healing with Horses” participant guide, the Veterans and caregivers wrote to their future self, a year older and wiser. As they listed goals and identified obstacles, a horse nudged her nose onto their shoulders and cheeks. In turn, they read their assignment to their equine companions.

“The team the VA brought together here, it’s a great team,” said Luther, after asking to participate again in the innovative therapy. “They’re accepting of every personality and the things they’ve been through. They don’t demand anything. They’re here to help.”

“Anyone can have a horse; anyone can be a social worker,” said Coble. “This requires people who are dedicated to the program and the Veterans. Everyone is bringing a lot of passion.”

“Healing with Horses” sessions are currently scheduled in El Paso County and Boulder County through October for Veteran-caregiver dyads. To reach out to the VA ECHCS caregiver support team, send an email to ECHCSCaregiverSupport@va.gov.

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