Organization to use horses to help injured vets leave war zone behind
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent July 21, 2012 9:40PM
"We're hoping the veterans have the same kind of connection as the kids do," said EEU board president Rita Wineinger (right) as she and Ron "Doc" Bishop of AVMRA (left) pet Abraham, the senior horse in the barn, at Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited (EEU) in Hobart, Ind. Friday June 22, 2012. EEU will be partnering with the American Veterans Motorcycle Riders Association (AVMRA) for the Horses for Heroes program. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
To provide a monetary donation, send checks to Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited, P.O. Box 53, Hobart, IN 46342. Note if you want the money earmarked specifically for its Horses for Heroes program.
Updated: August 23, 2012 6:06AM
HOBART — In past centuries, soldiers stormed onto the battlefield on the backs of horses, brandishing their weapons.
Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited in Hobart is planning to utilize trained and gentle horses to take military veterans’ minds far away from the war zone and help alleviate the physical and emotional scars they brought back with them.
With the aid of a monetary donation by American Veteran Motorcycle Riders Association, EEU is in the process of starting a local Horses for Heroes program, which provides therapeutic riding and equine facilitated psychotherapy geared for military veterans and those in service.
The nationwide non-traditional therapy program was started in April 2007 by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association Inc., now called the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. It teaches the soldiers new skills and helps get their mind away from the chaos of war.
This will be a new program at EEU, which has been providing therapeutic riding and education for people of all ages with disabilities since 1979.
Rita Wineinger, president of EEU’s board of directors, said the new program, which she hopes to have up and running this fall, would help veterans with physical disabilities and those with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has afflicted many of those soldiers returning from multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
She said riding a horse simulates walking for someone who has lost a leg and provides exercise for the other leg. But one of the most beneficial aspects of the program is the positive results it has for people with emotional issues.
“A magical thing happens between horses and our clients. The horses can sense there’s a problem and deal with the person riding them very gently,” Wineinger said.
That magic impressed the local chapter of AVMRA, which promises future donations, as well.
“There are a lot of magical experiences happening at EEU. It’s very good therapy for people with special needs to learn to ride. I think it will be the same for veterans,” said Cindy Bishop, whose husband, Ron “Doc” Bishop, is commander of AVMRA Chapter 13.
Bishop said the chapter does a lot of fundraising, including a major bike rally planned at Veterans Parks on 73rd Avenue in Hobart on Aug. 25, and plans to use some of that money for the Horses for Heroes program as well.
“I hope to get another donation soon for a second horse and then they’ll need a lift for the veterans to get on the horse,” said Bishop, who described herself as a horse lover.
Wineinger said she has two horses with the right temperament to handle the veterans, but she will need a few more that pass muster to be in the program.
“It’s a grueling process. Horses need to be bomb-proof,” Wineinger said. “It’s not easy to find the proper horse.”
She said before she accepts a horse she needs to talk to its owner then submit the animal through a series of rigorous tests. Even after all this, Wineinger said she has had to send back a horse if it isn’t gentle enough for EEU’s special clients.
Wineinger also is reaching out to veterans groups to help with the program as volunteers and to local veterans hospitals to bring their clients to the Hobart stables by bus. She said she has been in contact with Jesse Brown VA Hospital in Chicago, which currently buses veterans to a similar program in Harvard, Ill.
Brenda VanderLugt, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist with Jesse Brown VA Hospital, said they have been bringing a group of eight to 12 veterans to BraveHearts Therapeutic Horseback Riding and Educational Center in Harvard, Ill., at least once a month for three years with positive results.
“Getting people out of the city and on a trip for a day is pretty successful in itself. When they go through the riding, there’s been tremendous success with getting their confidence raised and getting over their trepidation of being around an animal,” VanderLugt said.
She said one female veteran has been going to BraveHearts for almost a year and has gone from having three people assist her while riding a horse to riding independently.
VanderLugt said the program primarily draws veterans in their 40s to 50s, although there have been a few in their mid-30s who have participated. It has been more difficult getting the younger veterans to participate, she said.
Wineinger said volunteers are needed to lead and walk on each side of the horse as the disabled veteran rides it. She is hoping to draw some veterans from an area veterans home.
“It would be nice to have veterans helping veterans. They understand the issues the others are going through,” Wineinger said.
But before the riding part of the program gets under way, Wineinger wants to get started on another therapeutic measure -- having the veterans do work in the stables.
“I want the veterans to work in the stables and be around the horses. It’s emotionally uplifting,” she said, although she added this part would not be required in order to do the riding portion.
“I think this will be a wonderful program. We just have to get it up and running,” Wineinger said.