Horse program helps veterans find peace after war

In a nippy breezeway at the River Run Equestrian Center, two U.S. veterans, one blind and nearly deaf and the other carrying a bright pink scar left from an explosion, groom thoroughbreds named Royal and Reggie.

For an hour, one day each week, volunteer Cindy Lonardo coaches Mike Shope, a 54-year-old Air Force vet, near the far ring. Leslie Olsen, a registered nurse and a PATH and EAGALA certified instructor, works with Chris Emmons, a 25-year-old Army vet from Cumming.

It is here at Atlanta Horses for Heroes that they and other U.S. veterans — some suffering from post-traumatic stress and others with physical and emotional issues — come to learn to trust again, to face their fears, to feel comfortable in their skin again.

The rhythmic riding helps them to focus, to live in the moment, to feel the calm destroyed by the long years on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least that was Olsen’s dream when she founded Atlanta Horses for Heroes, an arm of the nonprofit Rising Star Equestrian Foundation, some eight years ago.

The dream began, Olsen said, the moment she read an article in PATH magazine detailing a pilot program that worked with wounded warriors outside Washington, D.C. “I knew then I wanted to do that,” Olsen said. “I’m a daughter of an Army officer and wife of a naval officer.”

Soon after the couple was married, Olsen’s husband, Scott, left to serve in the Gulf War and so she knew firsthand the impact war could have on servicemen and women and their families.

Leslie Olsen had already spent years working with physically and developmentally disabled youths, first at Chastain Park and more recently here at the stables she rents from the Huntcliff Homeowners Association. She’d seen the physical and emotional benefits of therapeutic riding in their lives. She believed it could help veterans in the same way.

She’d call the program Atlanta Horses for Heroes and train her volunteers to work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Once the organization was in place, all that was left to do was find the wounded warriors. Olsen reached out to Veterans Affairs and the Shepherd Center and found plenty. The first group included men who’d been paralyzed from the waist down. At first, Leslie Olsen had them to the farm once a month, but she longed to do more.

Over time, they started coming every other week, and the program evolved into working with those suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder like Emmons. To date, she has served some 350 servicemen and women.

Shepherd Center therapists saw Atlanta Horses for Heroes as a welcome addition to the hospital’s SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program focused on assessment and treatment for servicemen and women who have sustained a traumatic brain injury and PTSD from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

“It’s hard to put into words what they are able to do, but we love what we’re seeing,” said Jen Fischer, a Shepherd Center recreational therapist working with the servicemen. “So much of their life is anxiety and stress, but connecting with the animals and the peaceful environment is transformative.”

In just a few weeks, Fischer said she has witnessed veterans, some who balked at participating in the program at first, change right before her eyes. “I’m going to go but I’m not getting off the van,” she recalled one of them saying to her.

Within minutes of sitting near the Chattahoochee, away from the din of traffic, Fischer said the vet, who struggled with anger issues, got out and walked over to the river. “He went from definitely not going on this outing to brushing the horses and watching his peers ride,” Fischer said. “You could see the change in his demeanor. In the end, he was calmer and seemed to appreciate the time there.”

The sessions are free, paid for by Olsen’s foundation. And the best part, perhaps, is Olsen and her team meet the vets where they are. “They’re not pushed into doing anything,” Fischer said. “If all they want to do is sit by the river, then that’s what they do. We’ve never had a bad experience.”

Sessions include teaching veterans to groom and then lead the horses through various activities. To do that, veterans must establish a relationship with the horse and earn its cooperation and trust. The horses, Olsen said, mirror the veterans’ moods. If he is anxious, so is the horse. If he is agitated, so is the horse. If he is calm, the horse is calm, too.

Emmons, a former sergeant in the 82nd Airborne, fears crossing bridges and crowds. Crowds, he said, were sure targets in Iraq. Atlanta Horses for Heroes, he said, is helping. “When you get out there, you don’t have the same problems,” Emmons said.

According to a Veterans Affairs study, nearly 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD, a disorder that can result from a traumatic experience and cause nightmares, flashbacks, withdrawal and panic attacks.

That’s why Olsen is convinced there are more vets out there who need her help, who have yet to find out about Horses for Heroes.

“We just have to get the word out,” she said.

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