Eastern Colorado VA “Healing with Horses”

Lisa Coble spent four mornings over the summer working with horses on a 41-acre ranch, participating in horse-assisted therapy for veteran/caregiver couples, an innovation project run by the Eastern Colorado VA caregiver support team. The team offers resources for those caring for a Veteran’s health and well-being.

Army veteran Daniel Luther leads a horse during horse-assisted therapy.

With a circle of chairs in the stables, a social worker and nurse led the tapings for the final three-hour session of the summer rotation. Ranch volunteers were preparing four American Paint Horses for unridden activities in a 100-by-180-foot enclosed training arena.

“The first session she was really down and feeling lost,” said Coble, who entered the arena with her mother and Army veteran Josephine Dixon. “One of her goals was to get her smile back. In the first half hour, her demeanor changed. She became more engaged. She was all smiles.

Horses reflect human emotions

“I didn’t think I needed anything,” Dixon said. “But this experience brought something. It has helped my daughter and I communicate better.

Dixon, 84, had been overwhelmed by the horses, especially their massive heads. She first walked with Shorty, a miniature horse with a braided mane. She walked on sand softened with natural oils. With the right shoes, she felt stable enough to hold the heads of normal-sized horses trained in Western dressage.

“I’m pretty comfortable with it all now,” Dixon said. “I didn’t know you could talk to these huge animals and they would respond like that.” Sometimes the sessions involve a herd of horses where each must effectively confront their fears and obstacles to communicate with a collective calm, knowing that the horses would reflect human emotions in their responsiveness.

Dixon served in the early 1960s on the Japanese island of Okinawa. As an army doctor, she remembers the faces of the troops preparing for Vietnam. Army veteran Daniel Luther, whose 30 years of service included combat in Vietnam and the Gulf War, was also in the training arena.

“You need things that take the pressure off.”

Luther, 76, was recovering from back surgery. The retired command sergeant major says a soldier’s body takes a beating after a few decades. Veterans often face years of intense physical and mental stress, compounded by difficult transitions.

“When you’re in combat, your life becomes strained, your mental capacity becomes strained,” Luther said. “When you go home, you have to earn a living, so it’s a tense situation to each other. You need things that take the pressure off so you can live your life.

“It’s a very relaxing situation,” he continued, while watching Tae, his 47-year-old wife, run with a horse, continuing to overcome her initial reluctance to approach them. Later, she attempted an unmounted side pass, having a horse walk to the side. “In a way, it’s testing to see how you change.”

“The emotions you give off and the feedback you get from the horses, it’s immediate,” nurse Justin Cobler said, explaining how spontaneity keeps everyone engaged. “Everything is very natural and improvised. Things just come out.

Emotions come out and trust is built

The Caregiver Support Team innovation project received a boost last summer when clinical social worker Jennifer Auger connected with a colleague leading equine-assisted therapy for veterans. who are recovering from drug addiction in San Diego VA. They have teamed up to adapt this program to support caregivers.

Woman stroking a horse

Tae Luther communicates with a horse during horse-assisted therapy.

In three months, the VA Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Program awarded nearly $30,000 to certify equine therapy social workers and acquire facilities in El Paso and Boulder counties. The program is designed to accelerate employee-inspired innovations.

“This is, by far, the favorite part of our job,” Auger said, wrapping up her eighth rotation of therapy since receiving the innovation funding. “The transformations we have seen are so profound. They feel safe to be vulnerable. Emotions come out. Trust is established. Horses have their own ability to reach out and form a bridge to other beings.

“It’s a blessing to provide our facility and our horses,” said Cindy Rau-Sobotka, who purchased the ranch from El Paso County in 2003 before retiring from the Air Force. A lieutenant-colonel battling cancer, she quickly benefits from the friendship of a horse. Rau-Sobotka opened Holistic Therapeutic Equine Center with the offspring of this stallion.

“The VA team is a great team.”

“It’s veterans helping veterans,” Rau-Sobotka said. The volunteers at his ranch were also veterans. “We work here with veterans to help them heal emotionally and become more self-aware and confident and improve their communication.

“The VA team assembled here is a great team,” Luther said, after asking to participate in the breakthrough therapy again. “They accept each personality and the things they’ve been through. They don’t ask for anything. They are there to help you.

“Anyone can have a horse. Anyone can be a social worker,” Coble said. “It requires people dedicated to the program and to the veterans. Everyone brings a lot of passion.

“Healing with the Horses” sessions are currently scheduled in El Paso County and Boulder County through October for veteran/caregiver couples.

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