Creating a place for veterans to work with horses

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An ancient link exists between horse and warrior, forged over millennia of human and animal together facing whatever danger may lie ahead.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that horses, though supplanted by machines on the battlefield, have proven effective in helping former soldiers struggling to adjust to life after combat.

For the past two years, HorseSense for Special Riders has offered an equine therapy program aimed at veterans, letting them connect with an animal at a time when they might not be able to relate as well to humans.

“And animals,” said HorseSense executive director Maggie McDonald, “are just good for the soul.”

One veteran noted his horse shared traits of his post-traumatic stress disorder. “Loud noises spook him,” McDonald explained. “He said, ‘Spooks my horse, too.’”

Horse and man then worked on that fear together.

Horses are by nature a flight animal, one that looks at anything new or unusual with suspicion, McDonald said. A plastic bag along the path can cause them to shy. It’s a survival instinct veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, familiar with roadside IEDs, can understand, she said.

Horses also are of a size that they can’t be pushed or bossed around but must be enlisted to join in, McDonald said. It’s a challenge to establish a relationship between horse and rider, one that provides veterans with a sense of accomplishment when realized.

HorseSense in early November moved to a new site just southeast of La Crosse, a scenic 40-acre farm atop Ten Mile Hill on Hwy. 14/61 that will allow the program to establish outdoor trails rather than be confined to arena riding. It’s the first permanent home since the program was established in 1989.

The property has a duplex with an empty lower unit that McDonald wants to furnish for a veteran, to get someone in the program even closer to the animals they relate to so easily.

The idea came from one veteran, farm-raised, who remarked during a session, “If I could come up here and sit all day, I would.”

A diabetic, he died earlier this summer despite being only in his 30s, McDonald said. She wonders whether someone would have noticed his declining health had he not lived alone.

She has been in contact with veterans’ agencies and groups on possible tenants. With three bedrooms, the unit could accommodate several veterans or one with a family.

They have beds and some furniture coming in; a donated refrigerator for the apartment arrives Monday. Still on the wish list: A stove, washer and dryer. The place has hook-ups for all three if the appliances can be found or purchased.

They plan to add a few more horses for the veterans program in the spring, ones that are big enough to handle men rather than the slower, smaller and gentler ones used with children. A new barn will be built as well that will be wheelchair-accessible, she said.

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