Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System
New Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program for Vets
Since 1996, Right Path Riding Academy, located on a cattle ranch south of Drumwright, Okla., has helped children with special needs enjoy the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.
In 2014, Ralph Henderson, President of the Vietnam Veterans Association in Tulsa, approached the academy founders and asked if they would interested in starting a new program specifically for Veterans.
They enthusiastically said yes, and Vietnam Veterans Association sponsored a therapeutic horsemanship program for Veterans called “Hooves on the Ground.”
“I started collecting saddles and horses,” said Henderson. “People were just real generous and helped us out a lot.”
Veterans in the association also volunteered to serve as mentors and Right Path Riding Academy conducted months of training with the mentors and horses.
Henderson also approached staff at the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System to see if the program would be beneficial to VA patients.
“When I first started talking to Ralph Henderson about what he was envisioning, I thought it was so recovery-oriented that it would be perfect for our Veterans,” said Dr. Alyssa Rippy, a psychologist and coordinator of the Psycho-Social Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC), an outpatient multidisciplinary treatment program for Veterans who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness.
The Importance of Connection
In September 2015, Veterans in the PRRC began the 10-week “Hooves on the Ground” program, and learned how to groom and ride the horses. They also learned the importance of connection, trust and partnership.
“Horses are herd animals and they’re highly relational,” said Judy Smith, Equine Therapist at Right Path Riding Academy. “Given the opportunity, they understand that to survive, they must be in a herd. They must be in a relationship.”
Because horses respond to body language, Smith taught the Veterans relaxation techniques and to be aware of their own body language.
“Horses are very, very sensitive because they are prey animals,” said Smith. “They’re going to respond to body language over verbal and we have to examine the messages that we send.”
Smith said that when a rider is anxious, the horse senses the rider’s anxiety and becomes afraid. So she taught the Veterans relaxation techniques to help them become comfortable in the saddle.
“On that first ride, they have to trust their Veteran mentor to take the reins and control their horse,” said Smith. “They have to trust in that horse and basically let go, just relax, close their eyes, breathe deep and trust in the process.”
Army Veteran Brian Davis, who served in the Persian Gulf War, said the program not only taught him the importance of connecting with the horse, but the benefits of connecting with people.
“With posttraumatic stress, people isolate themselves,” said Davis. “The program taught me that if I take the time to build a relationship with a horse, I get to the point where I don’t fear being around the horse. I can do the same thing with people. If I take the time to get out there and get to know somebody, instead of isolating, I will feel comfortable after a while.”
That is exactly what Henderson hoped for when he helped start the program.
“This program gives the Veterans back all the things that war takes away from them - hope, trust, friendship and loyalty,” he said. “That’s what a horse gives back to a Veteran, when the Veteran figures out that that horse is capable of being their friend and relating to them.”
Due to the program’s success, Rippy said the Behavioral Medicine Service plans to offer the program to other Veterans underdoing mental health treatment.
“Learning to trust the horse and have the horse trust you are a big deal for our Veterans,” said Rippy. “So many of our Veterans have told me that afterwards for the entire day, they are so much more relaxed and calm, they just feel good after they leave here.”