Vets find peace in Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program
Renee Dixon, Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program executive director is excited about welcoming civilian and military veterans with mental, physical and emotional disabilities to benefit from the equine sessions and close interaction with horses on a vast 60-acre farm in Port Deposit, Md. The facility includes a barn, as well as an outdoor and indoor riding arena to host the training sessions.
“We’re now celebrating 34 years of offering therapeutic horseback riding to people who happen to have these disabilities, Dixon who has a Bachelor’s Degree in equine studies and is an advanced instructor with the professional association for therapeutic horsemanship, said.
Dixon, the head riding instructor, and staff members at Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program have been working with veterans for 33 years – something Dixon says they love to do. The program is only the second in the U.S. to do so.
The program is also available to civilians and all military members – including active duty members and reservists.
According to Dixon, the Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding veterans program is a premiere accredited center with professional association for therapeutic horsemanship. The program offers two different types of therapy for veterans.
One is therapeutic horseback riding – which involves growing a relationship with a horse. The rider will learn how to ride the horse properly and go on trails and how to tack it off and how to groom it. Dixon noted another avenue of therapy training offered involves the mental health side of equine-facilitated learning.
The program lasts 10 weeks. But, veterans can attend the free courses without consulting the VA first.
“It requires spending time with the horse and dealing with their emotions while working with the horse. We also work with a mental health professional and an equine specialist and the vet,” Dixon said. “Our youngest student was 18 months when he started and our oldest student was 99 when he graduated from us.”
The participants receive about two hours of training. Appointments are available Monday night, Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sat. 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment only.
For William Clevenger a disabled Marine veteran of six years and Iraq War vet- eran, the program practically saved his life.
“I originally started getting help attending an in-patient program at the VA, who referred me to the therapeutic horseback riding program,” Clevenger said. “Before I started this program I couldn’t be with people or really connect with anyone. I completely withdrew and pushed all of my friends, family and people who cared about me away. I was just destroyed physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Once in the program, Clevenger started to connect with his horse. Clevenger said his horse helped him get back into reality – helping him “live in the moment and enjoy the moment.”
He also explained that while working with other veterans in the program, he was able to use the acquired skills to connect with people and hang out with them and live in the moment.
“We’d see each other on the way to our horseback riding sessions and we were happy to speak to each other more. It started out that way, at least one day a week,” Clevenger, referring to the open communication, said. “Then the more you do it, the more you feel happy. It started flowing over into other areas, and before (I) knew it I started feeling normal again.”
Clevenger’s admitted his metamorphosis stood in stark contrast to his demeanor a couple of months ago when his routine was to sit in his room alone- consumed by his own depression and PTSD.
Clevenger also said there is something special about the program – something the VA couldn’t offer him.
“It was me actually being able to get out there and physically do (something) that helped,” Clevenger said. “I think it’s absolutely great program. I went to the VA because I was just broken.”
It was apparent that Clevenger’s personal relationship with ‘ Dakota,’ his assigned horse would help him hone his communication skills. Clevenger said each horse has its own personality and cues.
“Horses are generally timid and scared, but you start working with the horse and you start learning their mannerisms, body positions and gestures. Then you began understanding and knowing what the horse is thinking,” Clevenger said. “You start to become in tune with this animal without any vocal communication, just from visual cues.”
Having reaped benefits from the program Clevenger asked if he could continue his healing process and is currently taking more courses.
Dixon noted throughout the year, the facility holds various fund raisers to support the non-profit organization so that it can continue to help people. Upcoming events include Family Day at the Farm April 24, from 1 to 5 p.m. and Four Wings Day Camp for able-bodied people or people with disabilities.
“The proceeds go to the therapeutic horseback riding program to support people with disabilities, which include the Veterans program,” noted Dixon. “We’re also looking for volunteers who will train them.”
The veterans program is also returning to Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program for the spring/ summer season and volunteers are needed for leading horses, side walking and helping the vets groom and tack their horses.
“Programs like this one saves lives,” Clevenger said. “I’m not saying every veteran that comes through is going to have an epiphany and say ‘oh my God,’ but if it saves one life it’s all worth it.”
For more information about the program, visit firstname.lastname@example.org or call (410) 378-3817.
William Clevenger stands beside his riding partner, Dakota, during an equine session at the Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program in Port Deposit, Md.