Horse News

Therapy Horses a Calming Influence on Veterans

By Brian MacQuarrie | Globe Staff

In Norfolk, female veterans find strength through learning to ride and care for horses

Veteran Eadyie Davis of Marlborough shared a quiet moment with therapy horse Creek. ~ Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Veteran Eadyie Davis of Marlborough shared a quiet moment with therapy horse Creek. ~ Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

NORFOLK — Feet in the stirrups, hands on the reins, Karen Souza closes her eyes as a quarter horse named Rio carries her to a tranquil, peaceful place she has rarely visited.

Souza spent decades walled off emotionally after being sexually abused as a teenage soldier. She never formed a loving relationship, and she spoke only sparingly. But from that dark, bleak world, she has emerged to find a place of trust, and accomplishment, and the simple joy of working with a large, strong, patient animal.

Souza is one of several female veterans who exhale and relax once a week at the BINA Farm Center, where they learn basic horsemanship and riding skills in a hands-on form of therapy. All of them are dealing with physical or emotional challenges.

But little by little, through grooming a horse or sitting in a saddle, anxiety and doubt are being replaced by laughter and confidence.

On this morning, 30 miles southwest of Boston, the veterans have been asked to shut their eyes and enjoy the slow, coordinated movement of their horses. It’s a simple request, but one that needs more than a little courage from women who often have felt vulnerable and abandoned.

“Every time I come here, this flood of emotions comes over me,” says Souza, 52, who lives in Worcester in transitional housing for female veterans. “I just feel cleansed, and you take that feeling with you. It doesn’t go away.”

As more veterans cope with long-term disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, public awareness about the problems and therapies to treat them has increased. Veterans programs such as the one at BINA Farm have surfaced in Massachusetts and elsewhere in recent years, following a long-held recognition that working with horses has therapeutic benefits for people with special needs.

“I want them to leave with skills and tools they can take out to the world,” says Eileen Polasky, program director at BINA Farm Center, a Natick-based nonprofit, with facilities in Norfolk and Wellesley. “For a lot of people, the horses are a way in.”

The women gain a sense of responsibility that comes from caring for a horse, even for 90 minutes a week. There is a search for the gumption to try something new, perhaps after many years of extreme withdrawal. And there is a sense of growing self-esteem for women who sometimes feel branded as failures.

“There was a time when I wasn’t talking because I didn’t think that anyone would get it,” says Eadyie Davis of Marlborough, a 47-year-old Air Force veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident during her military service. “Horses offer empathy, trust, compassion, and stillness.”

Now, seven sessions into the eight-week program, Davis is talking — a lot. She tests whether visitors know how many bones are in a horse, and how long horses sleep. “Did you know they’re afraid of us?” Davis asks.

Any fear on Davis’s part is not apparent. She pets Creek, helps adjust his bridle and halter, and chirps softly and soothingly to the palomino before nestling into the saddle. As Creek is led around the dirt floor by Pat Sheets, a volunteer from Roslindale, Davis is beaming…(CONTINUED)

6 replies »

  1. I understand that similar horse-therapy facilities exist across the nation and perhaps some of us who love our four-legged friends could do some volunteering? I know someone who volunteered at a program and she said it was amazing to be part of and to see the magic that occurred for the recipient. Both the volunteer and the recipient gain strength – a definite win-win.

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  2. I read it in the Boston Globe– and the old adage rings true: the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man (any human).

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  3. Reblogged this on Rebels for food freedom. and commented:
    Horses have the largest EMP heart aura in land mammals. They can be registered at 200 -500 feet away from the Horse. Some owners have told me they can feel their horse when they’re far away. So it doesn’t surprise me to read that veterans especially are doing so well with their Equine therapist. I will always prefer the company of a horse, to that of a person.

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