College of Medicine offers therapeutic riding program for veterans
Published: Sunday, May 20, 2012
Updated: Sunday, May 20, 2012 16:05
Our troops may no longer charge into battle on horses, but the animals are helping their riders fight a different kind of battle when they return home.
The UCF College of Medicine has partnered with the local nonprofit Heavenly Hoofs to develop a therapeutic riding program for veterans. The program relies on equestrian therapy, which rehabilitates soldiers by teaching them how to ride and develop a bond with the animal. Most veterans within the program have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental conditions as a result of combat.
The pilot class of the program ended this past spring. During the past two months, eight veterans — including two amputees — came to the Silver Spur Therapeutic Riding Center in Kissimmee once a week for three hours and got to know their horses as well as their fellow soldiers. Trainers taught the soldiers how to ride their horses along with exercises on balance and body strength. The program also included “unmounted” exercises, which took soldiers off the horses and taught them how to deal with psychological disorders.
“The psychological aspect of working with a horse and working with a group … helps them with their stress and their anxiety and their memory, even,” said Dr. Manette Monroe, assistant professor of pathology at the College of Medicine. “With the horses, [the veterans] have a connection with them physically as well as mentally.”
Monroe conducts research on the program and spends time with the veterans and horses nearly every week.
Heavenly Hoofs already practices therapeutic riding with more than 2,000 patients, including those with conditions of cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and autism, but only recently decided to institute a program for veterans. Monroe said that the therapeutic riding can benefit almost any person with a physical or mental defect.
That’s why the College of Medicine is petitioning the Osceola County Commission for land and money to build an equestrian therapy research center so that the program’s work can expand and grow to other disabilities. Osceola County Commissioner Frank Attkisson has been advocating for the project and believes that the College of Medicine is close to securing a property of 50 acres in the medical city at Lake Nona.
“When [Monroe] came to me, I could tell, here was somebody that didn’t just want to do it, but had a passion for it,” Attkisson said. “[This program] gives us hope and opportunity for those who fought our battles of freedom.”
Voting on the new center will take place early this summer, although an exact date is not determined. The new facility will have a covered riding arena as well as an office for College of Medicine staff to conduct research.
“We’re hoping that once we get the whole facility built, that we can do this for more veterans, several days a week, and offer classes in the evening,” Monroe said.
For the veterans involved in the inaugural class, it has given them new life. Ron Philpot, 50, served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 14 years and in the Navy for eight and was deployed to Iraq. For him, and other veterans, the class is the best part of his week.
“[Riding] is the most stress-relieving thing for me. It makes you forget the rest of your problems in the world. It’s amazing,” he said. “It helps break down a lot of our blockage. A lot of us are closed down emotionally … but it helps us come together as a group.”
Team building is also a key component of the class. For the past four weeks, the veterans have been practicing a drill routine for a performance on June 1 at Silver Spur. Most of them had never ridden a horse before they started the class.
“When we started with the vets, we were really intimidated,” said Abby Horner, operations manager for Heavenly Hoofs. “But from day one, they were all smiles. They just got into it.”
The only thing Philpot said he’d change is that they’d “meet more often. The more, the better.”
“When they talk about their stories, it’s really interesting,” Horner said. “Some don’t have families, they don’t trust people, but this is something they look forward to and [they] were so sad when it ended.”
For Monroe, a lifelong rider, it’s her favorite part of her job.
“Those days, when I get to go over there and work with [the veterans], it’s just stunning," Monroe said. “It’s the best thing I do all week.”