Traumatized veterans find relief on horseback

Whether they're healing from broken legs or PTSD, veterans find comfort in therapeutic riding programs.

William Clevenger remembers clearly when he began to believe he could regain control over his life: It was the moment last year that he mastered the rising trot while riding a dappled gray Percheron named Dakota.

In the decade since Clevenger returned to the U.S. from Iraq, where he served three tours as a sergeant in the Marine Corps, he suffered from combat-induced hyper-vigilance. In 2006, he was diagnosed with adult leukemia and almost died. He became so depressed he had a hard time leaving his room. The only way he could calm his anxiety was by getting drunk.

"I couldn't connect with people," he said. "I withdrew from everyone. I was trying to muscle through my anxiety on my own and without getting any kind of help. Then a couple of DWIs made me realize that I had a problem, and I checked myself in to the hospital."

In May 2015, Clevenger was admitted to the Perry Point VA Medical Center and, through the hospital, joined a riding program for military veterans that runs out of the Rolling Hills Ranch in Cecil County.

Such innovative therapeutic riding programs are increasingly being used to help veterans who have been diagnosed with injuries ranging from a broken leg to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The distance that Clevenger, now 34, has come since he swung onto Dakota's back for the first time will be demonstrated Friday night at the Maryland State Fair. Clevenger, who in less than a year has gone from being hospitalized for PTSD to living a relatively normal life, will participate in the inaugural Horses Healing Maryland's Military riding showcase.

The event will include a color guard and military music. There will be competitions in which riders complete obstacle courses while performing tasks such as placing flags into poles while remaining mounted. Veterans involved in the Freedom Hills and Star Community Equestrian Center therapeutic riding programs out of Hagerstown will perform military drills.

The Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program is one of 50 equine healing programs in Maryland that work with patients with diagnoses ranging from Down syndrome to multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer's disease. Ten of these programs in Maryland — including Freedom Hills — have groups designated specifically for members of the military, according to Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

Founded by Renee Dixon in 1982, Freedom Hills is the second oldest veterans' riding program in the nation, Peddicord said.

Shortly after she graduated from New Jersey's Centenary University with a degree in equine studies, Dixon decided that therapeutic riding was an ideal way to combine her love of horses and her longtime interest in occupational therapy.

The nonprofit is run from the same site that houses the stable Dixon owns, Rolling Hills Ranch, which provides lessons to the general public and operates a summer camp. Therapeutic riding is offered free to veterans, and she said the program subsists entirely on donations.

Dixon found that military veterans often are most comfortable in a group with other men and women who know what it's like to fight a war. In addition, veterans tend to suffer similar types of injuries — social, emotional and physical.

"Walking is one of the best exercises you can get, and for people with physical disabilities, horseback riding mimics the motion of walking," Dixon said. "People in wheelchairs can't power-walk. The horse moves their riders' hips in the same way as if they were walking. The warmth and motion of the horse can benefit little-used muscles, and in many cases, decrease muscle spasms."

Cecelia Kress, 60, of Abingdon, a retired technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, said that horseback riding is helping rebuild her leg muscles after she shattered her left knee.

"Riding builds up your core," she said. "You cannot have bad posture when you're sitting on the back of a horse."

And those are just the physical injuries.

Aaron Jacoby, chief psychologist for the VA Maryland Health Care System, said that horseback riding is one of several pastimes such as gardening, yoga, acupuncture and meditation used to supplement more traditional therapies for patients afflicted with mental and emotional demons.

"Horseback riding would never be considered first-line treatment for PTSD," Jacoby said, "but it is one of a number of activities that can help veterans manage the stress of daily life. Animals are non-judgmental. They don't tell you if you're doing something incorrectly, and they don't have emotional reactions to things you share."

Though there's ample anecdotal evidence that equine therapy can also help veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, attempts to quantify the impact scientifically are just beginning.

Earlier this year, the results of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri on the effects of six weeks of therapeutic riding on 38 military veterans concluded that riding contributed to a decrease in the symptoms of PTSD. The report found that the more time the veterans spent with the horses, the more they improved.

A similar study is under way at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Anyone who has ever spent time with a horse knows how easily these prey animals frighten. A horse can shy at a leaf fluttering to the ground, at a sudden noise, at an unexpected encounter with a barnyard chicken.

But horses also are herd animals who must communicate with other members of their group to survive.

Both characteristics, Dixon said, describe military veterans.

"These veterans may never have been on a horse before," Dixon said, "yet you see them talking to the horse and bonding with the horse and telling the horse their problems that they can't talk about to anyone else."

Though Clevenger had never ridden before he joined Freedom Hills' equine therapy program, there was something about the big, powerful Dakota that he liked. Hanging around horses forced him to live in the present instead of worrying about the future or obsessing about the past.

Shortly after starting to ride, Dixon showed him how to post — another name for the rising trot. Instead of sitting in the saddle and getting jostled about as riders in the Western tradition do, riders with English-style saddles use their thighs to rise up and down rhythmically with the horse's two-beat, diagonal gait.

"For the first time, I felt like I was actually riding the horse and controlling him," Clevenger said. "I wasn't just along for the ride."

Learning to post may seem just a small way of exerting control, but it was tangible and, Clevenger said, the first such accomplishment in a long time. He used that experience to gradually help him master other aspects of daily life.

After Clevenger was released from the hospital in December, he took a job at Freedom Hills performing maintenance on the property and caring for the horses. He moved into an apartment on the premises. From horses, he learned how to interpret nonverbal cues and use them to build a relationship based on trust — skills that came in handy when he began dating.

Clevenger recently started taking business courses at a local community college, and thinks he might someday like to work in the telecommunications industry. Though he'll be busy, he's confident that riding is something he'll do for the rest of his life.

"It was such a joy to get out of the hospital and to start work with the riding program," he said. "When I get around horses, I calm down."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The inaugural Horses Healing Maryland's Military riding showcase will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday in the main horse show ring at the Maryland State Fair, 2200 York Road, Timonium. Regular fair admission of $3-$8 will be charged. For details, go to horsesandveterans.com.

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