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Horse Therapy Helps Wounded Service Members Find "New Normal"

Image of Horse on left with ARNG Spc. Yesenia Flores, at an equine therapy program used by Fort Campbell's Soldier Recovery Unit. Yesenia Flores, a human resource specialist with the Army National Guard, said being with the equine therapy program horses shows wounded soldiers what emotions and tensions they’ve been holding in. The horses “mirror” a soldier’s feelings and make it OK to heal, she said. Soldiers assigned to the Soldier Recovery Unit on Fort Campbell, Kentucky, have the opportunity to receive equine therapy through a partnership with a local farm and its founder, Jenn O’Neill.

Equine therapy is one way Fort Campbell, Kentucky, supports wounded service members to help them in their journey toward recovery.

Army National Guard Spc. Yesenia Flores and Army Reserve Master Sgt. Rolando Colon recently participated in the equine therapy program.

Flores said before the session she would push down a problem, but when she's in equine therapy she finds that she's healing. "The horses will pick up on your mood, and then they'll act accordingly," said Flores. "They will literally 'mirror' you, and that's when you realize, 'Oh, I didn't realize I was like this.' They can see through you, and you just understand, 'This is something I need to change in my life.'"

Colon said he learned from working with the horses that "being vulnerable is a good thing." After a full day with the horses, he said he feels "exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally. And it's refreshing. I feel like I got all this weight off my back and it's nice. You're not alone."

Wade Binion, the supervisor of occupational therapy in the Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU) at Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital (BACH), explained how community programs can help wounded service members in their recovery.

"Programs like these are real-life examples of what wounded service members can do outside of just the gym or the clinic. It gives them the confidence that 'I can go back and do my regular life activities,'" Binion said.

"It's what their new normal is. And this helps them find their new normal."

And the way horses interact with service members can further progress.

"There's something about the horses that just kind of brings out a self-awareness," Binion said. "I've had soldiers go from just being there sitting in the corner, not even talking to anybody, to now trying new jobs and getting out."

A farm outside of Nashville, Tennessee, works with BACH to provide the SRU service members an opportunity to work intensively with horses.

At this farm, service members work with horses all day in three-day sessions, according to the owner, Jennifer O'Neill. They lead the horses around the farm's indoor and outdoor rings, groom them, get physically and mentally close to them, and let the horses take the lead.

This can bring the service members out of their sense of isolation due to psychological or physical trauma.

Along with forming bonds with the horses, participants are also connecting with each other in going through therapy together.

"By the end of the day, they're exchanging phone numbers, they're going back and having dinner together at the SRU," Binion said.

"I love life, I love healing, and I love hope, and that is what this farm is all about," O'Neill said. The partnership with this farm has served more than 4,000 military members and their families free of charge since 2010.

While equine therapy is not covered by TRICARE, there are many free or nominal community options for wounded service members and veterans to participate in these and other healing activities

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