Among the challenges veterans face upon ending active duty and entering civilian life is being able to communicate one's thoughts and emotions to spouses, other loved ones and other peers. The Lothlorien Therapeutic Riding Center in East Aurora played host this week to a group of veterans and spouses who were participating in Project Odyssey, a retreat facilitated by the Wounded Warrior Project.
The specialized riding sessions offered to veterans gives these individuals a temporary escape and a way to help them relate again with humans, according to Lothlorien executive director Maggie Keller.
"The horse is actually the closest thing to simulate a human's gait," she said. "What happens is you see these individuals get on a horse and, for the first time, they can feel that movement. They're free."
There were no wheelchairs nor signs of any serious physical trauma among the veterans and spouses who gathered inside the Angel Arena on the grounds of Lothlorien. These special guests were more likely to be bearing more deep wounds from emotional struggles and active duty-related stress.
"There's a lot of different issues that arise as a result of post-traumatic stress and combat stress. The spouses are dealing with a lot of burnout," said Gregory Hancock, a Combat Stress Recovery Programs Specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project. "These events and working with the horses also teaches some self-care and self-preservation."
After spending some time in a quiet group discussion, couples took part in an exercise involving eye contact and the slow approach toward each other. That is what they would soon do with the horses brought in, one by one.
The horses, it was explained, have a gift of being able to detect the state of the person facing it.
"What we teach is when they're with the horse and in front of the horse, if they're in that thinking, disassociated post-traumatic stress state, the horse will actually walk away from them," said Nancy Proulx, an equine facilitated learning coach. "What we teach them is to come back and to use their body as a sensing device, to calm it, to learn to be a leader, to learn to first calm themselves and then calm the horse."
In time, horses and humans were able to come face-to-face and find comfort with each other. Some were able to slowly walk the horse around the pen. One of the veterans was able to embrace and kiss his equine counterpart numerous times on its forehead and muzzle.
Adam Hoopengardner of Batavia was one of the participants. A Navy veteran, he estimates he traveled to as many as 30 countries over ten years while serving.
"Coming out of the military and having problems re-engaging in the community and trying to build bonds with people, coming out and seeing that bond built shows that I can still do that," Hoopengardner said. "It was very good to see that I have that capability still."
He said communication with his spouse has also improved, especially as she was able to meet others in a similar situation.
What veterans are seeking, Hoopengardner explained, is empathy, not sympathy.