TV: Horses help vets heal from warzone injuries



Posted on September 1, 2009 at 5:55 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 3:55 PM

To see Army Sgt. Angel Herrera ride a horse, you'd never know that not so long ago, she feared her riding days were over.


KVUE's Clara Tuma reports

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She was seriously injured in Afghanistan on Sept. 22, 2008, when a rocket propelled grenade exploded near her.

"I grew up around animals, horses in particular, and I wanted to do it," Herrera said. "It's really hard to find places to ride, especially if you have injuries. They don't want to cause further injury."

But then Herrera heard about Horses for Heroes, a horse therapy program for veterans at the R.O.C.K., Ride On Center for Kids in Georgetown, and she's finally riding again.

A paralyzed left arm and other injuries make her a bit slower than in her pre-injury days, but she's definitely at home back on horseback.

"Everywhere you go, you have people that look at you and your disability and they try to ignore the issue, instead of working with the issue," she said. "It's really nice to be here, where they understand you have problems, but they're willing to work through them."

Herrera is one of about a half dozen soldiers or veterans who ride weekly at the R.O.C.K., which provides free horse therapy to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The amazing part is that the movement of the horse simulates normal human walking," said Nancy O'Meara Krenek, founder and director of physical therapy at R.O.C.K. "So if they have physical injuries, it's the best way to help retrain somebody in how to move properly again for motor memory and motor training."

Physical therapy isn't all that's offered at R.O.C.K.

Fellow veterans often volunteer to handle horses in the therapy, offering advice and a compassionate ear to recently wounded veterans.

"It's that brotherhood, that if you haven't been a part of the military you probably can't even comprehend it," Krenek said.

Army veteran Scott Sjule says he volunteers to help mentor his brothers and sisters in the military.

"This allows them to participate in an activity where they're in charge," Sjule said. "They don't really start to heal, truly, and actually find their placement in the world until they are forced to, allowed to and encouraged to take charge of their own situation.

"We deal with a lot of people who can't walk from one side of the arena to another on their own, but they get that sense of independence when they can command a horse, and that horse probably weighs 1,100 pounds and you get to be in charge of that, plus, you sit up higher than everybody else," Sjule said. "It's a whole sense of empowerment you see that's void when you deal with people that are disabled or are in therapy."

R.O.C.K. began its Horses for Heroes program in 2005, with the idea that equine therapy could help amputees regain mobility.

It did, but therapists soon found the horses were equally effective in working with veterans whose injuries were not visible -- such as vets with traumatic brain injuries or post traumatic stress disorder.

"You have young men and women who look like they have it altogether, but their reading is impaired, their handwriting is impaired, and they're not functioning well," Krenek said. "This is a way for them to get some retraining, that works not only on their fine and gross motor skills, but their social skills, and helping their cognitive ability start to work in a more functional way."

Army and Marine veteran Erik Stoeckle says it took some work finding the right horse and right saddle to accommodate his injuries. But once he found Pokey, he says he was hooked on horseback riding.

"He's great," Stoeckle said. "He has very little lateral movement, which is great for me. He's a great horse and I'm glad I got to ride him."