Vets find peace in Free­dom Hills Ther­a­peu­tic Rid­ing Pro­gram

The Enquire-Gazette - - News - By BOBBY JONES Staff Pho­to­jour­nal­ist

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 fhtrp@free­domhills.org or call (410) 378-3817.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

Wil­liam Cle­venger stands be­side his rid­ing part­ner, Dakota, dur­ing an equine ses­sion at the Free­dom Hills Ther­a­peu­tic Rid­ing Pro­gram in Port De­posit, Md.

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