Califonia Bountiful

Partners in healing

March/April 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Combat veterans pair with horses to achieve inspiring results

U.S. Army veteran Norbie Lara works with his partner horse Ridge through Equine Services for Heroes, a therapeutic horsemanship program for veterans offered by Happy Trails Riding Academy in Tulare. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

As Norbie Lara turned down Happy Trails Riding Academy's fence-lined driveway one spring day about two years ago, the first thing he noticed was a speed limit sign: "5 miles per hour."

"I live a pretty fast-paced life," Lara said. "When I got down to that speed limit, it gave me an idea of what life could be like—a lot slower. I looked to my left and right, and there were a bunch of horses in the pastures."

Tucked among the vineyards and orchards outside Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley, Happy Trails is a 25-acre facility with a 21-stall barn, white-fenced pastures and a covered arena. It looks like many other stables across the state. But once you meet the horses and riders, you see that this is a special place—a healing place.

Most of the academy's 70 weekly riders are children with conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, brain injury, sight or hearing impairments, developmental disabilities, autism or Down syndrome. The nonprofit specializes in equine-assisted activities and therapies, an alternative therapeutic approach that aims to benefit people with special physical, cognitive and emotional needs through the handling, care and riding of horses.

For centuries, horsemanship has been seen as valuable for a person's health, but it wasn't until the 1960s that formal therapeutic programs started in the U.S. Such therapeutic horsemanship has been shown to provide physical benefits such as improving a rider's balance, strength and flexibility. Interacting with and forming a relationship with the animals can also help increase confidence, patience and self-esteem, and even improve symptoms of depression, according to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, of which Happy Trails is an accredited member.

"I've seen therapeutic horsemanship make a difference in the lives of our riders, their families and our volunteers," said Happy Trails Executive Director Leslie Gardner. "I really believe that it makes our community a better place."

Although Happy Trails had a track record of bringing positive change to the lives of children, Lara represented a newer type of visitor: a veteran looking to find hope on a horse.

The academy matches riders with one of a number of therapy horses. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Equine Services for Heroes

A squad leader in the U.S. Army, Lara was deployed to Iraq in 2004 when the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade left him with a severe brain injury, lacerated liver and missing right arm. It took years of hospitalization and therapy for him to make his way back to the San Joaquin Valley, where he grew up.

After working with other nonprofits, Lara saw a need to specifically support veterans in the valley. He founded the nonprofit A Combat Veteran's Hope and began looking for services in the region.

He discovered Equine Services for Heroes at Happy Trails. Launched in 2013, the 10-week therapeutic horsemanship program supports veterans dealing with a range of challenges, such as physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety.

Before recommending the program to the veterans he served, Lara wanted to try it firsthand. Lisa Cotta-Meek met him at Happy Trails on his first day.

First and foremost, Equine Services for Heroes emphasizes horsemanship and making a connection between veterans and their equine partners, said Cotta-Meek, Happy Trails program director and primary instructor. When participants arrive, she has already selected three or four horses for each rider that she thinks fit their skillset. But ultimately, each veteran decides which horse will be their partner.

Lara selected Ridge, a small but mighty animal.

"They said that Ridge is in charge in the pasture," Lara recalled. "Being the leader in my organization, it was great to have a partner who was also a leader."

Once Lara and Ridge were officially a pair, it was time for the work—and bonding—to begin.

Program director Lisa Cotta-Meek offers instruction in horsemanship to Lara and other veteran program participants. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

A tailored path

"Our program progresses very slowly and meets whatever the needs of the veterans are," Cotta-Meek said. All participants set their own goals when beginning the program. For some, it's regaining a sense of confidence and being highly competent at a skill. For others, it's coping with anxiety, depression or physical pain.

Before beginning to ride, veterans lay the foundational groundwork through Introduction to Horsemanship instruction. They first learn how their own body language and energy is a form of communication the horses respond to instinctively.

"Since horses are prey animals, they read us all the time and mirror back to us the emotions we're portraying," Cotta-Meek said. "The horses react in a way that is visible for the veterans."

This kind of immediate emotional feedback can help veterans learn self-awareness of their own body language and emotional state, which is beneficial and therapeutic, she said.

Early work also includes grooming, stretches, equine massage and techniques for calming the horse. They then work on leading the horse over obstacles. Eventually, the horse-and-veteran bond is so strong, the horse will follow its partner through maneuvers, even when unharnessed.

Happy Trails Riding Academy supports the community by serving both children with special needs and veterans. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Things begin to click

Through the years, Lara had tried many forms of therapy—"Everything from medication to meditation," he said—and here was a new therapy with a new set of skills to learn. But with Ridge, things began to click.

"By the third week, I started getting more comfortable with Ridge, and I started realizing there was something different about me, too," Lara said. "I left my phone in the truck, and for that hour and a half it was just Ridge and me."

Getting out in the sunshine, staying active, caring for another living thing and the relationship between horse and human can all provide benefits such as elevated mood, enhanced well-being and reduced blood pressure, Cotta-Meek said.

Each weekly visit brought new opportunities for Lara and Ridge to strengthen their partnership. When Ridge had days he was feeling anxious, Cotta-Meek showed Lara how to work with him in a round pen to release the horse's nervous energy and refocus. Lara made the connection with his own emotions and realized he could take steps to refocus himself, too, when he was feeling overwhelmed.

After a successful 10-week session focusing on groundwork, Lara trusted Ridge enough to begin riding in the next session. Cotta-Meek watched as the duo's connection continued to grow.

"He has a great relationship with his horse," Cotta-Meek said. "I'll put a challenge to him—just use your legs to guide your horse—no reins. And he can do it on the first try. It's amazing."

Lara says working with Ridge has provided him a welcome break from a busy life. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

The next chapter

With Happy Trails earning Lara's stamp of approval, he is now an outspoken supporter of the academy's work and encourages veterans to experience the benefits of therapeutic horsemanship. To date, Happy Trails has provided services to 30 veterans, and nearly every participant reports improvement, Cotta-Meek said.

"We do a survey before the lesson and a survey after: pain level, anxiety, depression. And almost always, it gets better," she said. "They say this is the best part of their week. One veteran talked about always leaning forward in his life, and here he gets to relax and lean back with his horse."

Today, Lara has earned his bachelor's degree and is busy expanding A Combat Veteran's Hope, which now provides more than 15 events a month to help veterans connect with services and each other. Despite a demanding schedule, he said he plans to make time to spend with Ridge.

"I hope that I'm always able to interact with Ridge and come to Happy Trails," he said. "These are some incredible people, offering some life-changing and lifesaving programs. It's important."

Megan Alpers-Raschefsky

Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Journey for the sensesĀ 

In addition to relaxing on the back of a horse, Happy Trails Riding Academy encourages its riders to focus on all five senses and add a challenging element to their therapy. The 2-acre Sensory Trail is open to all riders, including Equine Services for Heroes program participants, and features these elements:

  • Sound: A low and wide box is full of pea gravel that crunches as a horse walks through. Then the horses' hooves clip-clop over a wooden bridge.
  • Smell: An herb garden fills an old trough along the trail.
  • Sight: Instructors point out the dozens of birds, butterflies and other wildlife that live in the area.
  • Taste: Riders are encouraged to pick from any of the fruit-bearing trees planted near the path.
  • Touch: More than 1,500 plants, shrubs and trees offer textures to stop and enjoy.

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