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Veterans embrace the healing power of horses

By KAREN FLORIN | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: July 8, 2018

STONINGTON, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Stories of their military lives slipped out amid talk of curry combs, halters and hoof picks as veterans learned their way around a herd of empathetic horses on spring Saturday afternoons at the Horses Healing Humans farm off Route 184.

Doug Capazzi of Groton, Army veteran and military outreach director for Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services, perched on the rail of the outdoor ring one afternoon to watch for signs of distress among the participants. He confided to another veteran that when he was stationed at the Anaconda support base in Iraq, the place was nicknamed "Mortar-itaville" because it was getting shot with mortars and rockets daily. 

Navy veteran Victoria Forrer of East Lyme, throwing all of her 96 pounds into lifting up and cleaning the hooves of a paint (spotted) horse named Shamu one Saturday, talked about her work as a chock and chainer on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. She said life after the military has been more chaotic in some ways.  She's recently divorced and is raising her teenage daughter.

Another budding horseman and Navy veteran, Joshua Trask of Groton, mentioned during a break that he had been stationed on the USS Toledo when it was discovered the submarine had a cracked hull. 

The dozen or so men and women who showed up at the 34-acre farm for the eight-week V.E.T.S. semester came to take care of the horses and let the horses help them heal from emotional and physical stresses related to their military service or the civilian life that followed. The lessons are free, and all the instructors ask of the veterans is to show up, follow instructions and apply what they learn in their everyday lives.

"We ask that you make a commitment to be present," lead instructor Thor Torgersen told them the first week. "It's easy to get relaxed. These are 1,000-pound animals. Don't come out here if you've been drinking, if you're on drugs or impaired. Be present."

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man," goes the saying attributed to Winston Churchill and others.

The veterans inhaled the musky mix of horse sweat, hay and manure that is a perfume to many horse lovers and brushed away the remnants of the herd's thick winter coats. During lessons and trail walks, they grew accustomed to yanking up the heads of horses obsessed with snatching mouthfuls of the fresh green grasses that sprang up around the farm.

From instructors Torgersen and Christina Clark, the group learned that the horses would mirror the humans' moods, dropping their heads and twitching their ears when relaxed or turning away or swishing their tails when the humans were anxious.

"If you want to be calm, put your hand on a horse. Take a breath. Slow down. You'll feel them relax, and their ears will get all twitchy," Torgersen said.

All a vet had to say was, "I need a cup of coffee," code for "911," and Capazzi or another program leader would take them for a walk and, if they wanted, a talk about managing their emotions. PTSD, depression, anxiety and adjustment disorder are conditions that Capazzi knows too well. Sometimes he even takes himself for a walk on Saturdays at the farm.

Capazzi doesn't consider himself a "horse person," but he's a believer in the healing power of the herd at HHH.

"I was deathly anxious the first time I came here," he said. "By the end of the summer, I was riding a horse around the ring bareback. I call this place my Narnia. You can't get out of your car and not be happy."

The anchor

Craig McCalister, a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer, is executive director of V.E.T.S. and president of the board of directors. He runs the program, he says, as a "debt of honor" to fellow veterans. He learned about horses from an ex-girlfriend, and said he was sold on equine therapy for veterans after watching it work magic on his brother-in-law, who had survived an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan.

"His tone would be way up," McCalister said. "He'd be very stressed out. Around the horses, his tone would be down in 20 minutes. It works. There's something there. I don't know what it is."

Upon arrival each Saturday at 2 p.m., participants signed in on a sheet and noted how they were feeling so instructors would know if they needed attention. They gathered around McCalister for a briefing and assignments. At 4 p.m., after putting away the grooming buckets and returning the horses to the pasture, they gathered again for a debriefing.

McCalister served 24 years between the Coast Guard and Navy and says he has the bad back and knees to show for it, but that his service also gave him the "skillset" to run a program involving a lot of two-legged and four-legged personalities.

The spring semester, the third since the program moved to Stonington from a backyard operation in Lebanon, marked a transition for the V.E.T.S. leadership as they announced they would be taking on a bigger presence at Horses Healing Humans. The semester also brought some of the biggest challenges to date.

In March, a member of the Horses Healing Humans herd died. Many of the gentle steeds selected to do therapeutic work are older, and McCalister said everyone knew that the time was coming for Hanz, a Norwegian Fjord. McCalister involved the group in preparing a memorial garden at Hanz's burial site on the farm and invited them to a ceremony of remembrance for their fallen friend.

In May, program participant and volunteer Robert Porter, a 36-year-old Coast Guard veteran who cheerfully had helped prepare Hanz's burial site and ably handled miniature horse Lulu during an appearance at Mohegan Sun, died by suicide, shooting himself in the backyard of a friend's home in New London.

The V.E.T.S. program leaders organized another celebration at Hanz's gravesite, helping Porter's family members and the group work through their questions of what more they could have done to help. 

The Saturday program continued with a renewed resolve.

 "It was a good challenge for leadership, myself in particular, kind of keeping everyone together and moving forward, allowing the process, the healing, the remembrance ceremony and that stuff to happen," McCalister said.

One of McCalister's tattoos depicts the chief petty officer's emblem, an anchor with a twisted, or "fouled," chain to represent that there may be times when circumstances are beyond the control of the officer but that he must complete the mission nevertheless.

"Not everything is going to go as planned," McCalister said. "It's our job to unfoul it and get things going in the right direction. Also, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if you can identify it, you want to shore it up."

Nancy Beers, a Connecticut native who directs a therapeutic riding program in Colorado, observed the V.E.T.S. program for several weeks this past spring while in town to care for her dying mother. She said she, too, benefited from the healing power of the herd.

"They're not thinking about their PTSD right now," she said one afternoon while watching the group working in pairs to groom the horses.

Goosebumps

V.E.T.S. participants tend to come as students and stay on as volunteers, giving back as they continue to reap the benefits of the program.

Suzanne Silva brought her therapy dog, a Chihuahua named Brownie, to the Saturday lessons, tucked him into a crate in the barn and helped out in any way she could. She said she served in the Army National Guard in the early 1980s, is a Navy wife and developed bipolar disorder later in life.

"I really need this," she said. "I'm hoping you're going to get the word out there that PTSD, mental health and the Veterans Administration, they all play hand in hand. The government needs to take it seriously."  

The veterans experienced various levels of trauma during their military service, from Capazzi's grim experiences "in the sandbox" of the Middle East to 59-year-old Pawcatuck resident Randy Williams' Marine Corps assignments at Camp Pendleton in California and Hawaii following the Vietnam War.

Whether they saw combat or not, they say they can relate to one another in a way that their civilian friends and family members will never understand fully.

"As veterans, it can be very hard sometimes for us to talk to our spouses and family," said Willow Clausen of Canterbury, who served aboard the submarine tender USS Frank Cable in Guam, now works as an EMT and continues to drill with the reserves. "If you're non-military, you're only going to be able to take us so far."

Williams struggled with depression, homelessness and addiction during his post-military life and two years ago suffered a traumatic brain injury and broken bones after being struck by a car. Sober for two years, he still is working on his speech and mobility. He puts down his cane while working with the horses and takes a break when he gets tired. On the last day of the program, he walked the entire trail without stopping.

"To see where they've gone from back there to here is amazing," instructor Clark said. "To know that you're giving back to them,  and to have them come up and say, 'Thank you very much. You've made my week so much better and given me the confidence I needed,' I get goosebumps talking about it."

k.florin@theday.com

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