Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety condition experienced by one who has been subjected to severely distressing events. In the aftermath of such occurrences, the casualty of those events often chooses to withdraw from everyday activities and loved ones in an attempt to avoid any tumultuous situations.
“When we first see these soldiers, they often have stone faces. They are on prescription medications; they’re very anxious, and they tend to be quiet and stay to themselves. Being in crowds makes them very nervous,” said Bob Woelk of the Washington based Rainier Therapeutic Riding Organization.
Woelk and his wife, Debbi Fisher, recently spent time in Erath County to attend a clinic at Clinton Anderson’s Downunder Horsemanship.
Together they run the Rainier Organization, working with soldiers who have returned from deployment after having been injured in combat. Thanks to today’s technology, soldiers who would normally die from their physical wounds are surviving. Unfortunately, that’s also when PTSD can enter the scene.
“These soldiers come back to the states with physical and mental wounds. So they are put into a medical rather than active unit because they are not able at that moment to fulfill their active duty role,” Woelk explained.
In a bid to address the emotional needs of the wounded that does not involve medication, the military has been seeking more holistic avenues to make these soldiers more comfortable in the civilian world. That’s where horse therapy comes into the picture. Woelk and Fisher work primarily with the soldiers attached to Joint Base Lewis McChord, a United States military facility located near Tacoma, Washington.
What makes horses such a natural fit in the therapy arena?
“Horses are very intuitive. They mirror whatever the person is feeling. They can read anxiety. With our soldiers, I can tell as an instructor what is going on with them via their horse. A soldier can seem perfectly normal on the outside, but on the inside it might be different. And the horse will act out whatever is going on with that soldier inside,” Fisher said.
The Rainier website reports over 30 percent of returning soldiers are diagnosed with PTSD, but Fisher is suspicious that the number may be greater.
“I have soldiers that come to me on the side. I work with one woman like that. The process is the same as with a group, but she can remain anonymous,” Fisher said.
Woelk added, “Other active duty personnel tell us there are a lot of soldiers not diagnosed with PTSD who could use our program. Through these conversations we know the statistics are higher.”
Fisher has developed her own curriculum and teaching practices to address the needs of her clients. An avid equestrian since childhood, she realized she could use her talent with horses to address the needs of the victims of PTSD. And Downunder Horsemanship’s Anderson has provided invaluable support for Fisher.
“Clinton’s method is for training horses. And what we are doing with the soldiers is purely training them how to work with horses. That is our lesson plan. We are helping the soldiers to train their horses. All of the therapy in our program is between the soldier and the horse,” Fisher said.
Fisher met Anderson in 2001 when she attended a clinic he was conducting in Washington. Attracted to his method of training, she started following his techniques with her own horses.
But it would be several years before Fisher would make a link between Anderson’s method and the soldiers she was hearing of who were returning from combat duty, suffering from the invisible malady.
“Bob and I traveled down here to Texas in 2009 and listened to some active duty soldiers at a conference Clinton was presenting. They told us how horses had literally kept them from committing suicide. We talked to them afterwards, and Bob and I knew we needed to go back to the Northwest and start one of these programs,” she explained.
“It’s very important to Clinton that I get better at my instructional technique to work with the soldiers. He brought us down here free of charge to help. He’s been a great resource,” Fisher added.
Fisher and Woelk want to spread knowledge of what they have developed in their own program of therapy. Plans are for them to travel to Seattle for a national conference related to therapeutic horsemanship. Fisher will be presenting her methods to others.
“I want us to be able to share our knowledge,” she said.
Woelk summed up the key to their organization’s success with battle weary soldiers who participate in the horse therapy program.
“The soldiers want a challenge in what they are doing. They don’t want a pony ride. They enjoy our program and are drawn to it because it gives them a challenge. They are learning how to totally take over the horse experience and learn it proficiently,” he said.
The Rainier Therapeutic Riding Organization is provided at no cost to its participants. The nonprofit relies strictly upon donations and fundraising.
For more information visit www.rtriding.org.