Trau­ma­tized vet­er­ans find re­lief on horse­back

State Fair show­case tonight will put the spot­light on horse ther­apy

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Mary Ca­role McCauley

Wil­liam Cle­venger re­mem­bers clearly when he be­gan to be­lieve he could re­gain con­trol over his life: It was the mo­ment last year that he mas­tered the ris­ing trot while rid­ing a dap­pled gray Percheron named Dakota.

In the decade since Cle­venger re­turned to the U.S. from Iraq, where he served three tours as a sergeant in the Marine Corps, he suf­fered from com­bat-in­duced hy­per-vig­i­lance. In 2006, he was di­ag­nosed with adult leukemia and al­most died. He be­came so de­pressed he had a hard time leav­ing his room. The only way he could calm his anx­i­ety was by get­ting drunk.

“I couldn’t con­nect with peo­ple,” he said. “I with­drew from ev­ery­one. I was try­ing to mus­cle through my anx­i­ety on my own and with­out get­ting any kind of help. Then a cou­ple of DWIs made me re­al­ize that I had a prob­lem, and I checked my­self in to the hospi­tal.”

In May 2015, Cle­venger was ad­mit­ted to the Perry Point VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter and, through the hospi­tal, joined a rid­ing

pro­gram for mil­i­tary vet­er­ans that runs out of the Rolling Hills Ranch in Ce­cil County.

Such in­no­va­tive ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing pro­grams are in­creas­ingly be­ing used to help vet­er­ans who have been di­ag­nosed with in­juries rang­ing from a bro­ken leg to post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

The dis­tance that Cle­venger, now 34, has come since he swung onto Dakota’s back for the first time will be demon­strated tonight at the Mary­land State Fair. Cle­venger, who in less than a year has gone from be­ing hos­pi­tal­ized for PTSD to liv­ing a rel­a­tively nor­mal life, will par­tic­i­pate in the in­au­gu­ral Horses Heal­ing Mary­land’s Mil­i­tary rid­ing show­case.

The event will in­clude a color guard and mil­i­tary mu­sic. There will be com­pe­ti­tions in which rid­ers com­plete ob­sta­cle cour­ses while per­form­ing tasks such as plac­ing flags into poles while re­main­ing mounted. Vet­er­ans in­volved in Free­dom Hills Ther­a­peu­tic Rid­ing Pro­gram, based in Port De­posit, and the Star Com­mu­nity Eques­trian Cen­ter ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing pro­gram out of Hager­stown will per­form mil­i­tary drills.

Free­dom Hills is one of 50 equine heal­ing pro­grams in Mary­land that work with pa­tients with di­ag­noses rang­ing from Down syn­drome to mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis to Alzheimer’s dis­ease. Ten of these pro­grams in Mary­land — in­clud­ing Free­dom Hills — have groups des­ig­nated specif­i­cally for mem­bers of the mil­i­tary, ac­cord­ing to Ross Ped­di­cord, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Horse In­dus­try Board.

Founded by Renee Dixon in 1982, Free­dom Hills is the sec­ond old­est vet­er­ans’ rid­ing pro­gram in the na­tion, Ped­di­cord said.

Shortly af­ter she grad­u­ated from New Jersey’s Cen­te­nary Uni­ver­sity with a de­gree in equine stud­ies, Dixon de­cided that ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing was an ideal way to com­bine her love of horses and her long­time in­ter­est in oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy.

The non­profit is run from the same site that houses the sta­ble Dixon owns, Rolling Hills Ranch, which pro­vides lessons to the gen­eral public and op­er­ates a sum­mer camp. Ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing is of­fered free to vet­er­ans, and she said the pro­gram sub­sists en­tirely on do­na­tions.

Dixon found that mil­i­tary vet­er­ans of­ten are most com­fort­able in a group with other men and women who know what it’s like to fight a war. In ad­di­tion, vet­er­ans tend to suf­fer sim­i­lar types of in­juries — so­cial, emo­tional and phys­i­cal.

“Walk­ing is one of the best ex­er­cises you can get, and for peo­ple with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, horse­back rid­ing mim­ics the mo­tion of walk­ing,” Dixon said. “Peo­ple in Ce­celia Kress, 60, of Abing­don, an Air Force re­tiree, talks to her horse, Co­lada, af­ter an evening of rid­ing. Kress said that rid­ing is help­ing re­build her leg mus­cles af­ter she shat­tered her left knee. wheel­chairs can’t power-walk. The horse moves their rid­ers’ hips in the same way as if they were walk­ing. The warmth and mo­tion of the horse can ben­e­fit lit­tle-used mus­cles, and in many cases, de­crease mus­cle spasms.”

Ce­celia Kress, 60, of Abing­don, a re­tired tech­ni­cal sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, said that horse­back rid­ing is help­ing re­build her leg mus­cles af­ter she shat­tered her left knee.

“Rid­ing builds up your core,” she said. “You can­not have bad pos­ture when you’re sit­ting on the back of a horse.” And those are just the phys­i­cal in­juries. Aaron Ja­coby, chief psy­chol­o­gist for the VA Mary­land Health Care Sys­tem, said that horse­back rid­ing is one of sev­eral pas­times such as gar­den­ing, yoga, acupunc­ture and med­i­ta­tion used to sup­ple­ment more tra­di­tional ther­a­pies for pa­tients af­flicted with men­tal and emo­tional demons.

“Horse­back rid­ing would never be con­sid­ered first-line treat­ment for PTSD,” Ja­coby said, “but it is one of a num­ber of ac­tiv­i­ties that can help vet­er­ans man­age the stress of daily life. An­i­mals are non­judg­men­tal. They don’t tell you if you’re do­ing some­thing in­cor­rectly, and they don’t have emo­tional re­ac­tions to things you share.”

Though there’s am­ple anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that equine ther­apy can also help vet­er­ans re­cover from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, at­tempts to quan­tify the im­pact sci­en­tif­i­cally are just be­gin­ning.

Ear­lier this year, the re­sults of a study con­ducted by re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri on the ef­fects of six weeks of ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing on 38 mil­i­tary vet­er­ans con­cluded that rid­ing contributed to a de­crease in the symp­toms of PTSD. The re­port found that the more time the vet­er­ans spent with the horses, the more they im­proved.

A sim­i­lar study is un­der way at Bay­lor Uni­ver­sity in Waco, Texas.

Any­one who has ever spent time with a horse knows how eas­ily these prey an­i­mals frighten. A horse can shy at a leaf flut­ter­ing to the ground, at a sud­den noise, at an un­ex­pected en­counter with a barn­yard chicken.

But horses also are herd an­i­mals who must com­mu­ni­cate with other mem­bers of their group to sur­vive.

Both char­ac­ter­is­tics, Dixon said, de­scribe mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.

“These vet­er­ans may never have been on

If you go

The in­au­gu­ral Horses Heal­ing Mary­land’s Mil­i­tary rid­ing show­case will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to­day in the main horse show ring at the Mary­land State Fair, 2200 York Road, Ti­mo­nium. Reg­u­lar fair ad­mis­sion of $3-$8 will be charged. For details, go to hors­esand­vet­er­ a horse be­fore,” Dixon said, “yet you see them talk­ing to the horse and bond­ing with the horse and telling the horse their prob­lems that they can’t talk about to any­one else.”

Though Cle­venger had never rid­den be­fore he joined Free­dom Hills’ equine ther­apy pro­gram, there was some­thing about the big, pow­er­ful Dakota that he liked. Hang­ing around horses forced him to live in the present in­stead of wor­ry­ing about the fu­ture or ob­sess­ing about the past.

Shortly af­ter start­ing to ride, Dixon showed him how to post — an­other name for the ris­ing trot. In­stead of sit­ting in the sad­dle and get­ting jos­tled about as rid­ers in the Western tra­di­tion do, rid­ers with English-style sad­dles use their thighs to rise up and down rhyth­mi­cally with the horse’s two-beat, di­ag­o­nal gait.

“For the first time, I felt like I was ac­tu­ally rid­ing the horse and con­trol­ling him,” Cle­venger said. “I wasn’t just along for the ride.”

Learn­ing to post may seem just a small way of ex­ert­ing con­trol, but it was tan­gi­ble and, Cle­venger said, the first such ac­com­plish­ment in a long time. He used that ex­pe­ri­ence to grad­u­ally help him master other as­pects of daily life.

Af­ter Cle­venger was re­leased from the hospi­tal in De­cem­ber, he took a job at Free­dom Hills per­form­ing main­te­nance on the prop­erty and car­ing for the horses. He moved into an apart­ment on the premises. From horses, he learned how to in­ter­pret non­ver­bal cues and use them to build a re­la­tion­ship based on trust — skills that came in handy when he be­gan dat­ing.

Cle­venger re­cently started tak­ing busi­ness cour­ses at a lo­cal com­mu­nity col­lege, and thinks he might some­day like to work in the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try. Though he’ll be busy, he’s con­fi­dent that rid­ing is some­thing he’ll do for the rest of his life.

“It was such a joy to get out of the hospi­tal and to start work with the rid­ing pro­gram,” he said. “When I get around horses, I calm down.”


Wil­liam Cle­venger, a Marine vet­eran of Iraq, per­forms an ex­er­cise with Dakota, a Percheron from the Free­dom Hills ther­a­peu­tic rid­ing pro­gram. Cle­venger will par­tic­i­pate in the in­au­gu­ral Horses Heal­ing Mary­land’s Mil­i­tary rid­ing show­case tonight at the Mary­land State Fair.


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