By Erin Wittkop
American Forces Press Service
CROWNSVILLE, Md., July 13, 2012 – Army Sgt. Jonathon Biddle never imagined that the challenge of learning to ride a horse would help him recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and severe anxiety. A program called Horses for Heroes, however, is helping the wounded warrior do just that.
Biddle joined the Horses for Heroes program in the fall of 2011, following a month-long hospital stay at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. It was Biddle’s wife, Jackie, who encouraged him to try the program after he brought home a flyer from the Warriors in Transition Unit. The program, started in 2009 by Maryland Therapeutic Riding Inc., is designed to help wounded warriors relieve stress so they can focus on healing.
“I feel more confident and less intimidated when talking to people,” Biddle said after a recent riding session with his wife and sons at the Maryland facility here. “It’s been therapeutic for the whole family.”
Suzie Stricker, an MTR Horses for Heroes instructor, said the riding lessons “are an opportunity for the service members to relax and forget about their stresses for a while.”
Kelly Rodgers, MTR program director, developed the idea to provide horseback riding opportunities for wounded warriors after talking with retired Army Col. Ken McCreedy, an MTR board member who actively works with the Warriors in Transition Unit on Fort Meade, Md. The program began with six wounded warrior riders, and currently has 50 wounded warrior riders who take part in eight-week horseback riding sessions.
Family members are welcome to participate in the program , which is what attracted Biddle and his family. “I’d always wanted to learn how to ride and thought it would be a good way to bring our family together while Jonathon was recovering,” Jackie Biddle said. “I really value the downtime [that our lessons provide]. It’s one hour out of the week that our whole family can stop, relax and just enjoy being together. It’s my release.”
Biddle’s progress has been notable, said Chris Lewis, social services coordinator for the Fort Meade Soldier and Family Assistance Center and the liaison to the Horses for Heroes program.
“When Jonathon started the program, he was very shut-in. He was very non-communicative outside of his immediate family,” Lewis said. “He’s more outgoing now and willing to interact with other people.”
Lewis said he has worked with MTR since Horses for Heroes began in 2009. “Troops who ride at MTR undergo a change in their whole demeanor after participating in the program,” Lewis said. “Individuals who struggle with PTSD and traumatic brain injury find new ways to cope with their symptoms. They suddenly become more outgoing and open to new ideas, which propel them to try new programs [that would also help them heal].”
Biddle said he now encourages fellow service members assigned to the Fort Meade Warrior Transition Unit to join the MTR program. “I tell them to try it — even if they’ve never ridden — and to make it a family affair or social activity,” he said.
Like Biddle, Army Sgt. Thomas St. Maur struggled with recovery after he returned from a four-month deployment in Afghanistan. St. Maur, too, has found help in the Horses for Heroes program.
He said he is amazed at the new dynamic the riding lessons have brought to his life. “I started the program a month-and-a-half ago and was very wary of horses. I had no previous riding experience at all,” St. Maur said. “It didn’t take me long to realize that they’re just big puppy dogs, and I didn’t have to be anxious around them.”
A combat veteran of multiple deployments, St. Maur said Horses for Heroes has helped him manage his emotions and focus on having new experiences.
St. Maur strongly encourages other troops to get involved with the program, especially those like him without previous experience around horses.
“If given the chance, service members should definitely give it a try,” he said. “It’s been a great experience.”