Stables program heals veterans one ride at a time
By BARB EIDLIN | The Southern Illinoisan | Associated Press | Published: June 17, 2017
MAKANDA, Ill. — When retired Army veteran Kevin MacDonald walked into Giant City Stables for the first time, it was because he got a phone call from the Marion VA wondering if he would be interested in participating in a pilot project.
The project offered equine therapy to veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues through Specialized Equine Services' therapeutic program, which was already in place at the stables.
MacDonald, who lives in Vienna but grew up just outside Boston, said that while he had a love of horses growing up, city life didn't offer much opportunity to learn to ride. As an adult, he took the opportunity to get on a horse whenever he could, but with no formal training, his approach to horsemanship was a bit irregular.
"Back when I was on active duty I would rent a horse from the base stables," he said. "They would saddle it for me, and I would lead the horse two or three miles out from the barn, and then I would hop on the horse and it would run back to the stables because it knew where it was going."
MacDonald said that sometimes it was fun, but most of the time, it scared the living daylights out of him.
"But that was how I rode. So when the opportunity was offered to me through the VA, I said I would love the opportunity to learn how to ride and to learn why it would benefit me," he said.
When he was discharged from the Army in 2004, MacDonald left with the rank of sergeant, but also had sensorineural hearing loss and PTSD. MacDonald said that his hearing loss was heavily influenced by the fact that he "played with artillery for a while" but also has a congenital birth defect called a Chiari 1 Malformation, and Meniere's disease.
The effects of his biological diseases cause MacDonald to have issues with balance, and a constant sense of vertigo, and his PTSD can trigger flashbacks and severe anxiety.
Giant City Stables owner and operator Ramona Twellman said pairing horses with veterans participating in the therapeutic rising program amounts to a perfect partnership, because horses are masters at reading the emotional state of their surroundings.
"Horses survive in nature by reading intent at a distance," she said. "They know a mountain lion is nearby, but continue grazing until they feel the lion shift its attention and become predatory, and then the horse knows it needs to leave"
Their sensitivity, she said, offers the veterans a perfect mirror for how well they are dealing with their own emotional states.
"Humans rely so much on verbal communication that it is very easy to say things we don't mean," Twellman said. "But the horses don't work that way. They need congruency. They work best with us when our thoughts, words and actions all line up. I find a lot of times when individuals are struggling it's because they have a front that they are presenting to everybody that walks by, but that is not what they are feeling inside."
Twellman said she finds the veterans coming from the VA often need a little help in reorienting to civilian life.
"Coming back is a shocker, partially because they are used to hiding their emotions," she said. "Now they have to interact with people on a social level and don't have that option. It's hard for them to trust and to be present in a relaxed emotional state in the face of that they consider to be chaos."
Without the rules, regulations and instant support that permeate everyday life in uniform, many veterans experience even something as simple as a trip to the grocery store as traumatic.
"In active duty, in a hostile territory, you are constantly keyed up," MacDonald said. "For instance, you don't know if the interpreter you are dealing with who claims to be your friend is accurately conveying information. You don't know if the next minute the relationship will disintegrate, because people in war zones can have a far different agenda than you do."
MacDonald said when soldiers return to civilian life their experiences in combat can come back to haunt them.
"You find yourself in a supermarket, and you know the supermarket is a relatively safe place," he said. "You know the worst that might happen is that you might slip on water, or stub your finger reaching for frozen ice cream, but then someone will give you a look that might be similar to a look that someone gave you in a hostile environment, and all of a sudden that look will trigger an internal reaction."
So while veterans know they are not in a hostile environment, MacDonald said, the brain keeps trying to create a similarity.
Twellman said in her work they call this a "one-time learning experience."
"If you put your hand on a hot burner, you don't do that again, ever," she said. "Similarly, if some guy gives you a look and all of a sudden you are staring down the end of whatever he's got pointing at you, you don't hang around for that look the next time."
Twellman said the biggest issues veterans are working with when they come to the stables are trust and communication, and that horses can often act an intermediary between a person and their own feelings.
"Horses are very similar to humans in their emotional states," she said. "They can be introverted, extroverted, confident and insecure, or a combination of those depending on the day. Just like people they can move from confidence to insecurity, from flight from fear."
Twellman said you can take a horse and a human that are like-minded, and they will easily get along, but if you match a person with a horse of a different temperament, then that difference can help that person can learn trust and communication skills.
One benefit to being on horseback and out in the fields alone, MacDonald said, is that he can tell the horse just about anything he wants, much in the way he can talk to his service dog, Teddy. But while the dog comforts him when he is in a state of anxiety, a horse can have the tendency to confront him.
MacDonald said, once he came to the stables in a state of high stress and Twellman put him on a horse who was so keyed in to his anxiety that it would only walk backward for the entire hour and a half he was on it.
"I might have looked OK to other people, but the horse could see thorough my façade," he said. "I got frustrated, and Ramona helped me work through that frustration. And then when I came back to the stables the next time she put me on the same horse, and it took me awhile, but after about an hour I was able to get the horse to start going forward."
What he was missing though all of this, he said, was a shift in focus from being self-preoccupied to and engagement with the world around him.
"Every horse is unique, just like people. So I had to really focus on that horse, and focus on what needed to be done to communicate with that horse properly, because if you are not focused, there is a possibility you could hurt yourself or hurt the horse. And by the third time I rode that horse, she wouldn't even try to go backward."
MacDonald said in that situation Ramona was wise enough to make him do a repeat performance.
"The difficult thing about coming to the stables, initially, was to put my trust in Ramona," he said. "But I had to trust that she knew what she was doing, that she's going to protect me."
He soon realized, however, that Twellman's job was not to protect him, but to educate him.
"You are learning so many different processes as you go along," he said. "I had to learn to have faith in myself. I had to learn to rely on the basic skills of horsemanship I am being taught, and how to use them to ground myself and reorient myself when presented with a situation that is stressful or challenging."
MacDonald said there is so much so much information, and such a huge learning curve that I took him over a year before he felt comfortable stepping outside the stable grounds with a horse. But after many months of work, MacDonald was able to present the colors at the Williamson County Rodeo in Marion.
"It was the highlight of my year," he said.
MacDonald said that most importantly, working with Twellman and the horses helps him cultivate a sense of internal, emotional balance.
"When I first came here the first thing I had to do was learn to trust Ramona," he said. "But she has a way about her that is very trustworthy. She comes across as very genuine, and very much interested in and passionate about what she does. So right away that takes a lot of anxiety away from this process."
Twellman took over the stables in 2002, after spending 18 years a golf professional, and though she rode horses for most of her life, she had very little experience with the therapeutic side of horsemanship until she began volunteering for the stable's previous owner.
"The therapy program was here when I got here, so I just continued the program. I got my PATH certification after working for a number of years with a woman named Carol Spa, and she continues to be my mentor to this day."
Twellman says she can relate to MacDonald's experience of a learning curve as she knew little about the psychology of horses when she bought the business.
"I probably spent 10 years studying horse behavior after I bought the place," she said. "I had very little help at the beginning, so I would work in the barn all day, and then go to the house and study everything I could find about horses until I fell asleep, and then get up and do it all over again."
Twellman said that the more she studied, the more she realized that communication was the key to getting what she wanted from a horse, and that idea naturally began to permeate the therapy sessions.
"I was fortunate in that over the past 15 years I have probably had a hundred horses that I have had to assess, train, and make ready for different levels of customers or make ready for the public or therapy," Twellman said. "Most horse owners have the experience of just one horse."
Twellmann said the journey was not an easy one, but that the process of getting the horses ready and confident enough to deal with people helped her to learn how to teach people to find their own confidence. She also says she could never do what she does without her staff and her stable manager.
MacDonald said coming to the stables and working with the program has helped him to be a lot more honest about his emotions, and this, in turn has helped him better communicate with the world around him.
"To heal you need a process that works. I think as people we tend to want to fix ourselves, and if we can't fix ourselves then we just avoid our problems and say the hell with it," he said. "But then you find yourself 10 years later dealing with the same problems, but with deeper casualties."
He said the things that people carry will always be there, but programs like those offered by Specialized Equine Services offer a way to learn to accept those things, and to work with them to be successful.
"Working with Ramona and with the horses has made me more aware of what other people are going through," he said. "At the same time, it has given me more confidence in my everyday life. She is a good educator, and a good leader."
MacDonald will graduate from SIUC in December with a bachelor's degree in Workforce Education and a minor in communications. He lives in Vienna with his wife, Terri, their four dogs and four cats. He has three step children and four grandchildren.