Equine Therapy in the Mid-South

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By Dr. Lisa Manning and Marcus Manning

 “Transformational!” “No better therapy!” and “Life changing!” are a few of the exclamations from participants, military veterans, instructors, volunteers and parents at a variety of Mid-South equine-assisted therapy programs. Following is a look at two of those programs and how they help participants through horses.

WarHorses for Heroes
“I just thought it would do him some good to go on a fun, trail ride together,” said equestrian Weston “Trey” Lawson of his best friend, a veteran returning from the Middle East in 2005. On that trail ride, Trey Lawson discovered the effect that riding a horse had on his friend, who was experiencing PTSD. That insight led to the establishment of WarHorses for Heroes at Oak View Stables in Olive Branch, Mississippi in 2015.

WarHorses for Heroesis a non-profit organization that provides equine-assisted activities for veterans who have sustained service-related mental or physical injuries. Some of their services offered are grooming, groundwork, horseback riding, and advanced horsemanship classes.

Lawson explains, “The veterans with PTSD come to the program suffering from depression and isolation.”

“The first day I walked into WarHorses, I was in a very dark place. That program all but saved my life. Part of being a Marine is your pride in your strength, but that doesn’t always translate well into civilian life,” said Michael “MJ” Higgins, a former VA participant.  

“I immediately connected with the horse, Jeb, and with his veteran friend, MJ. This horse, this man, and this program saved my life,” said Terry Lemmon, an Army Ranger, who the VA recommended to WarHorses for Heroes.

After their discovery that veterans respond better to other veterans during equine-assisted activities and therapies, Marine Veteran MJ Higgins and Army Veteran Terry Lemmon have become closest comrades. From his positive experiences with equine-assisted therapy, Higgins has now become a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor (CTRI) and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (ESMHL). In addition, Higgins has incorporated a program with that vet-to-vet relationship in mind. He calls it Reise, from a German expression loosely translated as journey. The two often can be found at WarHorses for Heroes, Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy, and Home of the Brave.

Since 2017, Ani Blair has volunteered at WarHorses. She says this is where veterans often share their stories about finding comfort in horses – in the same way she had. She once struggled with her own mental health issues and horses were her therapy, so this is her way of giving back through WarHorses.

Two years ago, Blair said they made a short film titled,“You Can Be the Hero,”that was posted on YouTube. In the film, the veterans talk about coming here in a really bad place and being transformed through this program. Blair said, “With comradery and team work with other vets, there is no pressure; it changes their lives. At first they were quiet and there were no smiles, but they left bubbly, cheery, and happy.”

Lawson says that while there have been challenges during 2020, “We are still here and are ready to expand our activities after the New Year.” WarHorses hosts a Veterans Day fundraiser each year in November (this year it was virtual), and the program has helped hundreds of veterans so far.

Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy
Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy, located in the Fisherville /Collierville area in Tennessee, serves individuals with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities and hardship through equine assisted activities and therapies that empower, inspire, nurture, and help them succeed.

“Part of what makes what we do possible is that the horses are our partners and we always keep their best interests in mind. I have found that this isn’t always true in other disciplines,” said Sara Zurenko, a PATH International Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor (CRTI) and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (ESMHL). She is the Program Director at Southern Reins and has been with the program since its founding in 2015.

 Zurenko continued, “Even after over 20 years of having horses in my life, this work changed how I see them, train them, and care for them – not only their temperament, but also how their behavior and movement changes to meet the needs of the people we are serving. I see something that amazes me in every lesson or session. Horses really are rational thinkers, and I didn’t necessarily believe that until I saw what they do here every day. Sometimes this is their second or third career, and we are so lucky to have them on our team. We treat them like GOLD –because they ARE GOLD!”

“He is a changed young man,” said Carolyn Brown of her 19-year-old son, Parker. He has become a “calm, happy, delightful person” in the program at Southern Reins.

Parker Brown started in the Adaptive Riding program at Southern Reinsfive years ago at age14. Now he has blossomed into quite the young man through his love for and connection with the horses and riding.

Brown describes his favorite horses, Chief and Benny, as “his best friends.” And Teddy, a horse with only one eye, has helped him learn to follow his dreams “where my dreams take me.” He said that he has learned “patience for waiting for the other person to get off their horse so I get my turn… I am a good, powerful horse-riding machine.”

Brown’s mother Carolyn boasts about Southern Reins and describes the progress her son has made: “Parker tried team sports and couldn’t wait his turn, and in music class he’d interrupt and dance all over the place. Now, he has good rapport with his riding instructor at Southern Reins, Sara Zurenko, who is firm with him. They have a loving relationship, speak the same language, are on the same level, and treat each other with dignity.”

In addition to helping children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities, Zurenko says equine-assisted activities and therapies for veterans are truly transformational as well. She witnesses their major effects, such as increased trust and lowered anxiety levels, from just being around the animals. She explains how the horses help veterans communicate in a way that fosters their acceptance and function, and they learn to regulate their emotions.

Zurenko says there are not a lot of outdoor recreational activities for people with disabilities, and equine-assisted activities and therapies provide that and so much more. “Equine-assisted activities and therapies improve core strength, motor skills, balance, coordination, and mobility. The horse’s movement mimics our natural pelvic motion. This assists them in increasing muscle tone, and we see improvements in rhythmic movement for the participants. These are just a few of the benefits that we observe and that are reported to us by our participants and their families”

When looking for horses to use for equine therapy, “There’s a place and a job for all horses,” Zurenko says.

WarHorses and Southern Reins are just two of the many equine-assisted therapy organizations that are helping improve the lives of people through horses. Find information about WarHorses for Heroes at: https://warhorsesforheroes.org/. And here’s a link to the YouTube videos: “Bright Spot: Warhorses for Heroes:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=newTgUdMgwc and “You Can Be the Hero:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad_aJY4nJ-4

Find out more about Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy at: https://www.southernreins.org/

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