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Horse Therapy Helps Veterans Heal Invisible Wounds

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Horses are intuitive creatures. Sometimes they’re so sensitive a veteran’s pain can overwhelm them.

At Animals as Natural Therapy, a five-acre farm north of Bellingham, two Iraq War veterans recently worked with horses Abby and Artemis as part of an equine therapy program for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Physically I’m just kind of worn out and tired. Been moving last week so my back and shoulders hurt,” says Iraq War veteran Ron Boettcher. “I haven’t been able to sleep very well because I went and did the interview so I can start school. I’m excited but nervous at the same time. It’s just scary as hell.”

Many veterans with PTSD are turning to horses for help. More than 30 Veteran Affairs medical centers across the country participate in this kind of therapy for service members.

Sonja Wingard grew up on this 100-year-old farm and raised most of the 20 horses who live here. Today she's a nurse and through Animals as Natural Therapy, she’s worked with teen addicts and victims of domestic abuse. She started the veterans program six years ago.

She says there’s a lot of predictability in the military. When vets come home, they try to recreate that order and structure with their families, which can cause stress. Relationships tend to suffer most.

“We’ve found working with the horses has really helped people just get that you can’t control the situation always, and that it’s OK,” Wingard says. “The horses teach them that. It’s so cool.”

Therapist Joaquin Aguirre says the horses help to normalize what veterans are going through.

Veterans struggle with hypervigilance, unable to come off on patrol, he says.

“They’re having daymares walking down the street. They’re having difficulty maybe even driving and road rage, so rage is a big one for them,” Aguirre says.

Veterans may also feel isolated. “Some of the veterans are living in our hills here, in our mountains, and they don’t come down to the city, except maybe to buy food,” he says.

Richard Dykstra, a friend of Boettcher’s, talks about his combat experiences in Iraq and waking up with back-to-back nightmares. “I don’t know what to do about all that,” he says.

At the barn, Dykstra takes a chestnut mare called Abby out to a large corral. Boettcher leads a gentle bay named Artemis. It’s a sunny spring morning and the horses sniff the scent of new green grass on the hills.

Aguirre and Wingard walk alongside the men, offering suggestions and helping them connect with the horses through voice and touch.

Even small steps can be significant. “It’s an amazing feat when you’re able to lead a 1,000-pound animal,” Aguirre says. “When a horse joins up with you, that’s huge. So there’s metaphors there, are you watching my back?"

Wingard says the horses model calming down. The horses may be on alert but will return to a calm state called grazing.

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