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Equine-assisted therapy helps soldiers deal with PTSD

It's not your typical therapist's office.

There's no chaise lounge. No corporate art. No receptionist.

But for a growing number of local soldiers suffering from the invisible wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a 20-acre farm north of Fayetteville has become a place of healing.

Horses That Heal is a local nonprofit organization that serves veterans and at-risk youth through equine-assisted psychotherapy at Avalon Farms on East Reeves Bridge Road.

At the farm, situated between Linden and Fayetteville, veterans find a world far from the rank and structure of Fort Bragg. The therapy isn't for everyone, officials caution, but some have found it more helpful than other treatments.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, anywhere from 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the first Saturday of February, soldiers Ricky Derring and Corrie Gibson step into a muddy corral and place several plastic chairs into a small circle.

Derring and Gibson were strangers before they met at Horses That Heal.

But the two said they have a lot in common and want to encourage other veterans to seek help for their issues.

"We're asked to do things .," Derring said of his combat deployments. "You're going to come back with some issues."

During a typical therapy session, the soldiers would sit and talk about their issues. They would tell their war stories - their nightmares - and outline their goals for recovery.

On this day, Derring and Gibson talk instead about how Horses That Heal is helping them keep their lives together - how equine therapy is the only thing they've found that helps them.

As they talk, three horses silently wander from chair to chair. There is River, dark brown and the smallest of the trio. Sun is the lightest in color. Mark is large and dark.

At any moment, those sitting in the circle may feel the nose of a horse inspecting pockets or have one of the thousand-pound animals place its head on a shoulder.

Derring, a Green Beret and sergeant first class, said he has a lot in common with the horses.

After six combat deployments totaling more than four years, the Watertown, N.Y., soldier is jumpy. He's constantly looking for the next roadside bomb or ambush.

Mark also is alert and looking for potential threats. Unlike dogs or cats, a horse is a prey animal, said Deborah Foley, founder and president of Horses That Heal. It's built to be on constant alert for predators.

In the horses, Derring said he's found kindred spirits. Their heightened awareness matches his own. They connect, he said, on a warrior level.

Derring wasn't always so open about his PTSD.

"I've been in a lot of combat situations," he said, estimating that he's suffered from PTSD for the past four or five years. "I was hiding my symptoms for a while."

When Derring did seek help, he didn't find it effective.

It wasn't enough to meet with a therapist once a month, he said.

And other treatment, such as the military's virtual-reality exposure therapy, had him wondering if he could be helped at all.

"I left those throwing up and crying," Derring said.

But then he heard about Horses That Heal from a co-worker.

He was apprehensive at first.

"I didn't know what to expect," Derring said.

But now he's been attending therapy sessions at the farm for about three months and said he's making progress.

"It takes a while to heal from this," he said. "This has been a step in the right direction."

For Gibson, an Army specialist who has deployed once to Afghanistan, the equine therapy has offered a rare reprieve from her issues.

Gibson has been attending therapy at the farm for the past five months, after being referred by a social worker in her Warrior Transition Battalion.

She grew up with horses, she said, riding them and barrel racing in her youth.

Gibson has been seeking treatment for her PTSD and a personality disorder since 2012, she said, but equine therapy presented the first real breakthrough.

She's feeling better, she said. She's sleeping better. She's making progress.

"I work better with animals than I do people," Gibson said. "I feel more at ease being here with them."

Before finding Horses That Heal, Gibson said, she was "rock bottom" and self-medicating with alcohol.

"I was a mess," she said.

Weekly therapy sessions just weren't working, she said.

Then, with equine-assisted therapy, the results were almost immediate.

"It helped me to process a lot," Gibson said. "In the first session, I cried. I hadn't cried in a while."

On the farm, Gibson, Derring and the other soldiers who seek help there are charged with caring for the horses and often work with the horses to overcome man-made obstacles.

It's all a metaphor for their own obstacles, said Foley, who founded the organization in 2009, at the time borrowing space on a private farm.

In 2011, the organization built Avalon Farms and has been slowly expanding ever since, she said.

But the program is still relatively unknown at Fort Bragg, Foley said, with new clients coming almost exclusively from word of mouth.

A clinical therapist, Foley still keeps an office on Arsenal Avenue in Fayetteville, she said. But more and more of her sessions are occurring on Avalon Farms.

Foley grew up around horses, she said, and was immediately attracted to equine-assisted therapy after learning about the relatively new but growing field.

Funding has been an issue, but the organization has been able to survive on grants and donations from the community.

Many of the horses were donated, Foley said, and the organization has several volunteers.

Foley said the decision to start the nonprofit wasn't made lightly.

The wife of a retired soldier with 30 years and seven deployments under his belt, Foley said she sees real promise in this type of therapy.

"I've seen the difficulties the military is going through," she said. "They can't do this alone. The military can't offer this."

The organization works with referrals and also works with individual soldiers who may not wish to have their issues reported up their command chain, Foley said.

"You can just 'be' out here," she said. "It's a safe place to let go and feel better."

Horses That Heal is the only equine-assisted therapy organization in Cumberland County, according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, but at least two other groups operate near Fort Bragg.

Hope-thru-Horses is based in Lumber Bridge, according to the association, and Strengthening Strides operates in Raeford.

The association's website said there are more than 600 programs worldwide.

The organization calls the therapy a "collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals."

"EAP is experiential in nature. This means that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing (or discussing) feelings, behaviors and patterns," the association said. "This approach has been compared to the ropes courses used by therapists, treatment facilities and human development courses around the world. But EAP has the added advantage of utilizing horses, dynamic and powerful living beings."

brooksd@fayobserver.com

 

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