Claudia Carreon cannot recall anything about the day in June 2003 when her mind shattered. She doesn't remember the Iraqi truck careening toward the U.S. Army fuel tanker. Nor can she remember the driver's attempt to keep the truck from hitting the vehicle. The collision that slammed her head against the dashboard - or was it the windshield? - is also lost.
Carreon takes notes when she meets people. She asks for their business cards; those with photos are preferred. Her memory constantly erases itself. She religiously videotapes family gatherings, birthdays, and the milestones in her 4-year-old daughter's life. She watches the images over and over to remind herself who, among the people around her, are kin. Her most likely response to any question about her life is, "I'm sorry, I don't remember."
But when Carreon gets to the horse arena, she is transformed. She remembers the names of her fellow riders and her instructor at Therapeutic Riding of Tucson (TROT). She knows her horse, Thunder, without any prompting. She remembers how to mount and ride. The cues and commands she gives Thunder to guide him through the skills course, or out on a trail, come naturally.
From the time Carreon started taking lessons two years ago, "she would get better every couple of rides," says Mary Vardi, TROT's director of instruction. "She came out here after being gone for a couple of months, and she remembered almost everything. She rode beautifully. It was unbelievable."
Such is the magic of equine therapy and a nationwide movement called Horses for Heroes, which is changing lives for thousands of disabled combat veterans. The program is helping amputees learn to walk again, showing traumatic brain injury victims how to remember, relieving sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder from their demons, and teaching blind veterans to live independently.
Larry Pence, retired National Guard command sergeant major, and retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mary Jo Beckman created Horses for Heroes in conjunction with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. It grew out of two desires: to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and to show the world there is something extraordinary - if scientifically inexplicable - about the healing power of horses.
Out of the Gates. Equine, or hippo, therapy has been used for decades to help people with muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, learning disabilities, and other physical and mental conditions. Riding helps to build core muscle strength, improves balance, builds confidence and reduces stress.
Col. Paul Brown, a physician at Fitzsimons Army Hospital near Denver, observed more than 500 Vietnam War amputees in the late 1960s. He concluded that equine therapy was the single most important factor in restoring confidence among soldiers who lost limbs from combat wounds. One triple amputee purchased his own quarter horse and went back to working cattle. A bilateral amputee returned to parachute jumping.
"We were able to stimulate motivation in people who had been resigned to being cripples," Brown wrote in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.
Brown encountered vigorous skepticism from the commander of the Oakland Naval Hospital, who claimed horseback riding and other "extraneous activities" merely "prolonged rehabilitation" and only helped people who had the initiative to take up horseback riding without the help of the military medical system. Driver's education was deemed more beneficial.
Brown didn't give up. And when Mary Jo Beckman heard him speak about using equine therapy to help soldiers, during a 1997 therapeutic riding conference in Denver, she went home and attempted to start a program at Fort Myer, Va., for disabled children of servicemembers.
Because Fort Myer is home to the horses of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which pull casket-bearing caissons for fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, it seemed the ideal place to launch her effort. The plan, however, quickly became mired in meetings and promises, and didn't get off the ground.
Beckman never lost her passion for the idea. While horseback riding with Pence's wife in December 2005, she mentioned her desire to help wounded and disabled soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Peggy Pence suggested that Beckman speak to her husband.
"Larry knew all of the doors to open in the Pentagon," Beckman says. "The Army finally said I could have four rides to prove it worked."
Fort Myer was chosen to host the pilot program. Its caisson platoon horses are large enough to carry adults and, because they are accustomed to rifle volleys during funeral services, the animals are not easily spooked. Pence raised money to buy equipment and build a ramp to help wounded soldiers onto their horses.
Beckman, a master-certified therapeutic riding instructor, worked with the 3rd Infantry's horse trainer to select four steeds for the pilot program. She also trained caisson platoon soldiers as side walkers and lead walkers for patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One day a week, instead of burying their fallen comrades, members of the 3rd Infantry would help their wounded comrades recover.
Beckman also arranged for an occupational therapist to perform tests on each participant before and after the month of weekly riding sessions. The results were astounding. One soldier - whose lower left leg was amputated - graduated from the equine therapy program at Fort Myer, stayed in the Army and made a parachute jump at Walter Reed, when the medical center dedicated its new amputee rehabilitation center. Another soldier, who also lost her lower left leg, went on to run in the New York City Marathon and take skiing lessons in Colorado.
"They learn that they didn't leave the best part of their lives on the battlefield," Pence says. "It shows the benefits of this program, not just physically, but emotionally." Families benefit as well, Pence says. "They see their loved one on a horse, and they realize that things are not as dark as they seem." Water Reed Army Medical Center became a strong supporter. Weekly therapeutic riding lessons continue at Fort Myer.
Today, Beckman and Pence are united with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association to take equine therapy to some of the 700-plus, NARHA-accredited therapeutic riding centers across the nation. They pitched their Horses for Heroes program at NARHA's annual convention in Anaheim, Calif., last November and found hearty enthusiasm. More than 100 equine therapy centers have inquired about offering the program in their communities.
VA has given the program its blessing. Then-VA Secretary Jim Nicholson visited Fort Myer in December 2006 and pledged $50,000 to help get Horses for Heroes out of the gates. He also encouraged VA medical centers to link up with local therapeutic riding programs. More than 35 VA medical centers across the country have expressed interest or are already working with equine-therapy establishments.
This alone won't sustain Horses for Heroes. Therapeutic riding centers already have to bring in considerable money because horses are so expensive to raise. Large numbers of volunteers also are needed to serve as side walkers and lead walkers with each rider. Pence is encouraging therapeutic riding centers to seek support and volunteers at their local National Guard armories, reserve centers and American Legion posts.
"One thing that can help wounded warriors coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is if the side walkers and lead walkers are in the military, or are veterans," says Pence, whose 28-year military career includes two combat infantry tours in Vietnam. "Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have more in common with veterans. It makes them feel more comfortable; it provides them with an emotional benefit."
By coincidence, TROT began working with the Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System in Tucson at about the same time Pence and Beckman were developing Horses for Heroes. It is a natural fit. Vardi has a degree in special education and 17 years of experience as a therapeutic riding instructor, including a decade working with soldiers and children in Israel.
Veterans who take riding classes at TROT have ranged from an 80-year-old World War II veteran with early-stage Parkinson's disease to an Air Force military policewoman who suffered a stroke, from a Desert Shield veteran with chronic rheumatoid arthritis to traumatic brain injury victims from the global war on terrorism.
VA chooses the riders, Vardi explains. "Then we do our own evaluation to decide if they are safe to ride. Our goal in working with these veterans is providing them with the skills and confidence to become independent riders." There are challenges, such as how to get Air Force Staff Sgt. Juemell Ballou, whose left side was paralyzed by a stroke, onto a horse. A ramp, well-positioned volunteers and patience are what it takes in that case. Some of the challenges are not physical. Spc. Erik Castillo, who suffered brain injury in 2004 from insurgent mortar fire in Baghdad, confided that he was terrified about getting on a horse.
"He said, ‘Feel my heart beat,' before he got on the horse," VA recreation therapist Mandy Perigo says. "It was racing. But once he got on the horse, he was fine."
"When I got up there and felt the horse breathing, I got kind of excited," Castillo says. "It made me realize that if I can do horseback riding, I can do a lot of things. It gave me the confidence to go to the (national) wheelchair games." Riding helped Castillo learn to walk, after a year and a half in a hospital bed with his brain injury. Amputees commonly report they walk better after therapeutic riding.
Navy veteran René Suarez, who suffers debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, says riding improves stability and flexibility.
Ballou is able to relax, which is not easy since the stroke. "Sleep is always elusive for me," she says with a gentle laugh. After riding the first time, "I felt so relaxed, I almost literally crumpled to the ground." It's also an opportunity for veterans to practice skills they learn in therapy, Perigo explains.
"They can work on their memory, on following directions, on staying focused. We help them practice these skills in a real-world situation, while giving them a new activity to participate in, now that they have a disability."
Riding class also creates a social network for veterans who, because of the nature of their injuries, can easily become depressed and isolated. "This gets them out," says Perigo, who typically attends classes. "I've seen the patients out there exchange phone numbers and they call each other and talk about how things are going."
Peace and Freedom. Carreon strides into TROT's offices on a flawless blue-sky Friday and greets Suarez and Ballou as old friends. She can remember them. After catching up, they make their way to the arena. Carreon goes straight to Thunder, puts her hands on his cheeks and plants a tender kiss on his muzzle. Her fellow veterans are also attentive to their mounts.
Once Carreon, Ballou and Suarez are on their horses, Vardi starts the drills.
"OK!" Vardi calls out, "Breathing and stretching! Breathing and stretching!" Carreon, ramrod-straight in the saddle, throws her arms over her head and takes deep breaths.
"OK, Claudia," Vardi says. "Give him a squeeze. Tell him to walk on." Carreon's balance is excellent. The side walkers don't touch her horse as she makes a few passes around the arena at a walk, rotating her shoulders, her arms, and then her entire upper body. Minutes later, Thunder is off the lead rope and Carreon is in command.
"It's a wonderful experience," Carreon says. "It's a feeling of being in charge of myself, of being in charge of the horse, the release of tension and stress, a feeling of peace and freedom I can't get anywhere else. It doesn't matter how many problems you have, you forget about them."
Which is exactly what Horses for Heroes is all about.
"When this program expands across the country," Pence says, "there's going to be a wealth of more stories just like these."
Ken Olsen is a freelance writer living in Portland, Ore.