California Riding Magazine • October, 2009

Project Healing Horse
Joker’s Treats enlists others in its support of wonderful work done with veterans.

by Kim F. Miller

Hippotherapy and therapeutic riding have long been recognized as highly beneficial for people born with a variety of physical and/or mental challenges. Project Healing Horse aims to promote the use of these therapies for America’s wounded veterans, most of them from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Established by Joker’s Treats proprietor George Wooding, Project Healing Horse educates the public about the unique benefits horse-oriented therapy offers veterans. Its website, www.projecthealinghorse.com, enables visitors to support this work by making a donation to one of 11 therapeutic riding centers currently offering programs to veterans.

Wooding was inspired to launch Project Healing Horse after seeing the success The National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside was having with veterans.

Founded 38 years ago, NCEFT began serving veterans two and a half years ago. The Center provides its equine facilitated programs to veterans free of charge to the clients or the government thanks to private donations.

Hippotherapy is often the first step for interested veterans, especially those whose injuries have deprived them of core strength that is key to the balance needed for everyday activities. Hippotherapy does not teach patients to ride, but instead uses of the motion of the horse to simulate walking and to build core strength necessary to stay balanced atop a horse. A licensed occupational or physical therapist is always part of the team during hippotherapy.

When students are ready to progress to therapeutic riding, a full range of cognitive benefits come into play, explains NCEFT’s director of operations Gari Merendino. In learning to control the horse, patients must sort out details, follow instructions and remember directions. The social interaction with their teachers and riding assistants, along with the sense of independence gained from controlling a horse, build confidence that makes complete healing possible. “Most of these veterans were in the best shape of their lives before their injuries,” Merendino notes. “They go from that to not being able to do anything for themselves and having to depend on others.”

Angel’s Flight

The success of U.S. Marine Angel Gomez is one of Merendino’s favorite examples of horses’ unique ability to help veterans get their lives back. Injured in a roadside bomb attack after six months in Iraq, Gomez arrived at the poly trauma unit of the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto with a big, half moon shaped scar on his head. He was unable to use most of the right side of his body, used a three-pronged cane to walk and had to rely on others to drive him anywhere. In the course of a year at the Center, he learned to canter his horse around the arena. More importantly, he moved on from the program able to walk without his cane and to drive a car again. He shaved his head and stopped wearing hats, no longer self conscious of his scar.

“When he left, he had his life back,” recounts Merendino. The emotional aspect of interacting with and riding a horse is a big component of this treatment mode. “As with any therapy, the results always come from a blend of all the things you’re doing,” Merendino explains. “With veterans the first thing to focus on is their physical injuries. But all these veterans have post traumatic stress disorder, so the emotional part of the puzzle is very important.” It’s impossible to pinpoint how much of the benefits of therapeutic riding stem from simply interacting with the horse, aka “pet therapy,” but Merendino guesses it’s huge. “Just as with kids and adults, coming out to ride and be with horses is not therapy, it’s fun,” he comments. “They are out in the fresh air having a good time. Often they are working very hard without realizing it.”

Helping to groom and prepare the horse they ride is part of the NCEFT routine and these are often the moments that prompt far-reaching connections between horse and humans. “We incorporate time for them to build a relationship with their horse,” Merendino explains.

Combined Benefits

In the inspiring movie on Project Healing Horse’s website, veteran Alfredo Caps is captured happily and competently cantering around the Center’s large arena. While in the VA’s poly trauma unit, he’d been working hard at many activities intended to restore his balance. “But with the combination of therapies that happen when you learn to ride a horse, it all happened a lot quicker,” the veteran smiles.

Wooding is well known in the equestrian world for the popular line of healthy horse cookies, Joker’s Treats. The San Francisco-based company is a generous sponsor of various equestrian events and a long time contributor to the North American Riding For the Handicapped Assn. Wooding is neither a veteran nor a rider, but his experience watching injured service men and women benefit from their time with horses got him fired up to try to make this therapy better known and more widely available.

“Our dream is to have therapeutic riding programs available to help with the healing of all injured veterans who would like to participate,” says Wooding. He knows that’s a big task. The U.S. Department of Defense reports there are 1.5 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and approximately 400,000 of them will seek medical and/or mental healthcare from the VA. Thus the need to enlist the public’s help. Donations to Project Healing Horse can be directed to a specific therapeutic riding center and dedicated to their veterans effort.

One hundred percent of all donations go to the centers, Wooding notes. And they are much needed. Sessions for veterans typically cost $120 an hour and the VA does not reimburse centers for the therapy they provide. In addition to the NCEFT in Woodside, the Project Healing Horse site directs donations TROT in Tucson, AZ and Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center in Elbert, CO, along with eight other facilities outside the West Coast.

For more information, to see the impressive nine-minute movie or to make a donation, visit www.projecthealinghorse.com.