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Wounded veterans get back in the saddle

Pilot program uses horseback riding as physical therapy

By LISA BURGESS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 5, 2006

ARLINGTON, Va. — Decade after decade, the elegant final journey through winding roads of Arlington Cemetery has been the last service the horses and riders of the 3rd United States Infantry have given their comrades in arms.

But over the past month, a new tradition has begun for the storied Caisson Platoon of the Army’s “Old Guard,” formally known as the 1-3 Infantry Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment: helping wounded vets from Iraq and Afghanistan learn balance, coordination and other valuable physical therapy skills.

Friday marked the final session of a pilot therapeutic riding program for wounded veterans recuperating at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Five soldiers and one airman signed up to participate in the therapy sessions, including a former rodeo trick rider who lost his right leg below the knee to an IED.

Another participant, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Abdullah Johnson, the Caisson Platoon leader, was a female enlisted soldier who was depressed over the loss of her lower leg.

After she took the first session at neighboring Fort Myer, Va. — where the horses are stabled — her mother told Johnson “that’s the first time since she got back from Iraq that I’ve seen a smile on her face,” he said

The medical term for using horses in physical therapy is hippotherapy, said Larry Pence, a retired Army command sergeant major who together with Mary Jo Beckman, an instructor from the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, founded the pilot program.

Around the country, many hippotherapy programs are aimed at children with degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

But horseback riding can also be “a huge benefit” for amputees, including the many wounded veterans at Walter Reed who have lost limbs to IEDs, said Josef Butkus, an occupational therapist at Walter Reed.

Adjusting to the motion of the horse helps with core strengthening of the lower back and hips, Butkus said, while taking pressure — and pain — off the end of amputated limbs.

Butkus said he has seen the Walter Reed riders “find a whole new center of balance, and a whole new sense of control” during the program.

Army 1st Lt. Ryan Kules, who took three of the four lessons that were offered in the pilot program, agreed.

“It has improved my balance each time,” he said.

“Also, I’m always looking for things I’ve done before that I can still do, even after losing an arm and a leg. It’s a confidence-builder.”

Although the pilot program is now over, with the encouragement of the Caisson Platoon and Walter Reed, the program’s founders have asked the Army to continue the riding therapy sessions on a long-term basis, Pence said.

Butkus said there are dozens of wounded veterans at Walter Reed now who could benefit from the riding.

“I think everyone involved would like to see it continue.”


Mary Jo Beckman of the Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia and one of the co-founders of the pilot therapeutic riding program, leads one of the horses to a specially constructed mounting block the Caisson Platoon built for the wounded vets.
LISA BURGESS / S&S

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