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You Can Tell Them Secrets

'You can tell them secrets'

Star-Tribune staff writer


Robert Evans has served his country more than most.

He's been a Marine, a Navy seaman and an artillery soldier for the U.S. Army. He's a Vietnam veteran.

He's also an alcoholic. He works with a psychiatrist at the Cheyenne VA hospital for mental health issues he's battled for years.

So when doctors offered him a chance to bring a horse into his treatment, he was willing to give it a try.

"It'll help, I guess," said Evans, 51, of Cheyenne.

"People bond with animals. You can tell them secrets you can't tell other people."

That's precisely the idea behind Horses for Heroes, a program aimed at helping heal veterans from the backs of horses. It was developed by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association in conjunction with the 1st Cavalry Division Horse Detachment of Fort Hood, Texas.

Seven soldiers who had suffered amputations from Brook Army Medical Center saddled up first. They were evaluated before and after participating in the program and showed that they had improved in physical balance, gait and mood. Soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center are also participating.

Casper's Reach 4 A Star Riding Academy wants to bring the program to Wyoming. On Saturday, it hosted an open house to reach out to veterans who may need help.

"It's one of the things that has been really important to me," said Karol Santistevan, the academy's arena director.

"A lot of my family has served in the military, and my brother was in Iraq. He got to serve his country and come back. This is my opportunity to say thank you."

Horses have long been used in physical and emotional therapy. Riding builds core stomach and back muscles necessary for balance. A horse's gait loosens muscles and is a soothing massage for hurting tissue. For injured soldiers, Santistevan said, horses have been shown to help with traumatic brain injury. They can also be used in "equine psychotherapy" as safe confidants for soldiers who are unwilling to talk about their experiences with other people.

"I can't imagine anyone going over and serving in war and not coming back different than they were before," Santistevan said.

For Saturday's open house, the Cheyenne VA brought four veterans under its care. The hope is to start a weekly horse program, either with horses closer to Cheyenne or with an outreach program from Reach 4 A Star.

"Especially with post-traumatic stress disorder, the soothing nature of the animals and the non-threatening aspect of the riding is wonderful," said Kristi Ruben, a recreation therapist with Cheyenne's VA.

Veteran Jeremy Cline left the Army in 2001. But he's a pretty good example of the type of veteran Horses for Heroes aims to help.

In 2003, when he was a civilian, a workplace accident took Cline's leg. A train car ran over his right foot and dragged him the length of about 10 cars before stopping. When he looked, he saw blood filling his sock, and his leg looked yellow and swollen. Doctors reconstructed the foot, and he actually left the hospital with it 10 days later.

But after about a week, Cline sought treatment at the Orthopedic Center of the Rockies in Fort Collins, Colo. When doctors unwrapped the bandages, gangrene had already set in. His toes were black, and his foot stank horribly.

"I knew I was going to lose something. I decided to do whatever I had to do to get back to normal life," said Cline, 28.

Now, he undergoes therapy at the VA for both the injury and for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, similar to many soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has flashbacks of the accident and suffers from survivor's guilt: He wonders why it happened to him, why he didn't die.

The horses, he thinks, could help returning soldiers who suffer life-changing injuries or mental illness. They may even help him, though his condition has improved remarkably over the last several years. He now works as a prosthetic technician helping other people with their artificial limbs.

Joan Fangman, 43, also has high hopes for the horses.

The Cheyenne woman served in the U.S. Army from 1986 to 1989. But her multiple sclerosis has kept her in a wheelchair since 1995. Riding could build her core strength, stretch her leg muscles and, just maybe, the side-to-side jostling of her body in the saddle will stimulate the nerves to her limbs.

At Saturday's open house, she left her wheelchair on the ground as volunteers lifted her to the saddle for the first time in several years. She circled the ring with volunteers holding her steady in the saddle.

When she was done, she felt calm and relaxed.

"He was very, very easy and very comfortable. He acted like he knew how I felt, so he tried to do good," she said of her horse, J.R.

"It was a good feeling. I wouldn't want it to go fast, but it was a good feeling."