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The Toledo Blade

Veterans retake the reins with therapy horses


In 2007, Amanda Thompson saved Elise, a saddlebred quarter horse.

In 2016, Elise saved Matthew Nicolai. And Sam Hudson. And almost a dozen other U.S. military veterans seeking respite from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of their military service.

“[Elise] has a special gift for people struggling with their self-worth,” said Ms. Thompson, who rescued the now-12-year-old horse after Elise tore a ligament while jumping a fence and was going to be put down. “A lot of times when the vets have low self-esteem, she has a special way of planting her feet and saying, ‘Until you get right with yourself, I will not cooperate with you.’ She will really have a stand-down with you.”

Elise is one of 11 horses hand-picked by Ms. Thompson, a U.S. Air Force veteran and founder of H.O.O.V.E.S., or Healing Of Our Veterans Equine Service, a program in which Ms. Thompson’s horses work to break down barriers in one-on-one and group sessions with veterans at monthly workshops. Each horse has a special personality and therefore a special place in her program.

Shelby, a 12-year-old mustang, exudes a calm demeanor that seems to empathize with the emotion of apathy or depression in vets. Killian, a 14-year-old Clydesdale, would curl up in your lap if she could, breaking down the toughest of tough demeanors. And Tulip and Molly, both massive Percheron draft horses — one black and one white — react to the light and darkness in a veteran’s life.

“They are herd animals … and they have the innate ability to read our body language and mirror it. They all have different personalities that help veterans with different problems,” Ms. Thompson said of her horses. “The ones I have kept, I see something in them. They are not just horses, they are my staff, they are my co-facilitators, and they are doing some great work.”

Horses were a safe haven for Ms. Thompson, who was raised with them from a young age in Whitehouse.

It was about six years ago, after serving four years of active duty with the Air National Guard and struggling with PTSD, depression, and other effects of her active-duty service that she formed Riverbend Equine Therapy and H.O.O.V.E.S. with her father, Ron Coale, on their Grand Rapids farm.

Already someone who had trained with horses most of her life, Ms. Thompson found that traditional therapy wasn’t working. But by working with horses, she said she healed herself. She returned to Ohio and obtained training certification through the EAGALA Equine Assisted Psychotherapy certification program.

When her father died two days after Christmas in 2013, Ms. Thompson found herself with struggling to keep the farm going. She sold it in 2014 and moved the horses to a barn in Delta that was offered to her.

Determined to keep the program afloat without forcing veterans to pay for the services, she started fund-raising campaigns and used every penny she had to keep it going. In November 2015, she started day-long workshops where up to a dozen veterans can come and spend the day in sessions with her horses at barns in Swanton and Oregon.

“I can’t put it any other way than it was just magic,” said Mr. Nicolai, 32, of his first experience at H.O.O.V.E.S. “One of the horses came up to me… and she happened to just lay down on the ground. So I sat down with her and she put her head in my lap and let me stroke her like a dog.

“The moment that connection happened with that horse, it brought a wall down. I thought, ‘Whoa, what is this? I feel something again.’ I felt alive for the first time in several years.”

Ms. Thompson’s program is sometimes first met with skepticism, then oftentimes, success. One unwilling vet, dragged into the H.O.O.V.E.S. program by others, experienced major breakthroughs after working with the horses for a day. His wife thanked Ms. Thompson for bringing her husband back to her, a man who had been mentally and emotionally absent for 10 years after serving in Desert Storm.

A veteran who hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in three years went through a H.O.O.V.E.S. session with Molly and Tulip. Afterward, he slept through the night.

Some vets have felt the need to only work with the horses once; others return for more interaction with the horses, Ms. Thompson said.

Sam Hudson, 33, a U.S. Navy vet, shared all of the skepticism, fear, and other emotions some vets had before they tried the program. It took him three weeks to call about H.O.O.V.E.S. after his mother gave him a brochure.

“Last November when I went, I could not have been more terrified. I lived with a constant fear. But that day, I made a breakthrough,” Mr. Hudson said. “I went home and tried to figure out how in eight hours I accomplished more than I had in eight years with traditional therapy.”

Mr. Nicolai is a U.S. Army infantry specialist who was injured during active duty in Afghanistan. Since his medical discharge in 2011, he described his experience with traditional programming through Veteran’s Affairs as “three years of doctors, paperwork, endless therapy, PTSD treatments, and endless medication — bottles and bottles of medication, they were tossing it at me like it was candy.”

So when his wife Heather found H.O.O.V.E.S. on a social media page and suggested he try it, he shared the other vets’ trepidation.

“The infantry teaches you to be effective at some very, very dark things that people don’t like to talk about. My job was to be a leader and train young men for combat. Be effective,” he said.

“When my wife showed me the H.O.O.V.E.S., I was like it’s just another ploy to get veterans to come in and talk about their problems. It’s just another therapy session and I don’t want anything to do with it. I couldn’t have been more wrong about something affecting me so much, so quickly.”

Mr. Nicolai said the vulnerability with the horses he felt was strong, and the transformation almost immediate. He went home and began to connect on a deeper level with his wife, his kids, and his community. He returned to the gym and lost weight. He got involved with his church. He volunteered with H.O.O.V.E.S., a program he said “gave me purpose again.”

According to the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy, horses were first used in ancient Greece in the 17th Century to treat those with neurological disorders, low morale and gout. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that there are more than 600 equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning programs worldwide, and while the therapy for those with physical and developmental disabilities has been around for decades, equine services for military veterans is a relatively new concept.

According to 2010 research done on equine-assisted psychotherapy for combat veterans by Nancy Masters, veterans with PTSD and horses share the same heightened fight-or-flight instinct.

“Being prey animals, horses experience this state most all of their existence and depend on it for survival, but as they are herd animals, they must also manage to learn effective communication and develop the means to cohabitate in their community or they will be isolated from the group, which leaves them highly vulnerable to a variety of threats,” Ms. Masters wrote.

The VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, which serves most of Southeast Michigan and Northwest Ohio, practices evidence-based, traditional therapy practices, but supports and refers any outside programs that are beneficial to vets, said spokesman Brian Hayes.

“Anytime we can do something to improve the function of any of our veterans emotionally, we know from studies that that improves their physical health as well,” Mr. Hayes said.

The next H.O.O.V.E.S. workshop takes place Nov. 20. For more information, visit hooves.us.

Contact Roberta Gedert at: rgedert@theblade.com or 419-724-6075 or on Twitter @RoGedert.