DECEMBER 11, 2014, NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (NNS) – You won’t find equine-assisted therapy at your typical therapist’s office, but for a growing number of local veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war, Operation Warrior Refuge (OWR) has become a viable option.
OWR, based at Greenwell State Park in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, is a cooperative partnership that uses horses and facilities for equine-assisted psychotherapy.
Sarah Williams, cofounder of the program, said equine therapy isn’t for everyone, but some warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have found it more helpful than traditional treatments.
“My husband and I are both U.S. Army veterans with two tours of duty in Iraq,” Williams said. “I began to experience PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] shortly after returning home and sought treatment. I tried different treatments, but nothing seemed to work until I started the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association [EAGALA] therapy.”
Rather than teach riding or horsemanship, EAGALA therapy focus on interactions between the horse and the individual.
Williams said the horse’s heightened awareness matched her own. They connected, she said, on a different, spiritual level.
“Horses are perceptive, majestic animals,” explained Williams. “You have to be calm for them to trust and accept you. My therapy started off slowly, but as treatment progressed, the animal showed me the things I needed to work on.
“I’ve been in a lot of tense situations,” she said, estimating that she’s suffered from PTSD since her first deployment. “My family and I suffered in silence before I found this therapy.”
Since attending therapy sessions at Greenwell State Park Williams said she’s made significant progress.
“It takes a while to heal from this,” she said. “This therapy has been a huge step in the right direction for my entire family.”
Dianne McKissic, OWR program director, said most of the group’s activities are geared toward action and reaction.
“The animal’s mood often mirrors the veteran’s,” explained McKissic. “You must control your emotions and build a relationship with the therapy animal. The horse must trust you and you must trust the horse.”
McKissic said another goal of OWR is to create a community of veterans who come together and support each other.
“Many of our returning warriors are apprehensive about opening up to strangers about the traumas and hardships they endured,” McKissic said. “Many vets hide their true feelings in a group setting but they cannot hide their emotions with our horses.”
For more information, visit www.operationwarriorrefuge.org.