Equestrian program helps vets heal
AKRON, Ohio — When Jem Groom first walked through the door at Pegasus Farm near Hartville, Ohio, just the sight of the Christmas decorations on display at the time made him uneasy.
Groom is a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from a battlefield incident that happened on a Christmas Eve.
Since that first day, however, his participation in the farm's Veterans' Salute therapeutic equestrian program has helped him heal emotionally, he told participants at a recent veterans event at the farm.
Groom attributed his improvement to both his work with the horses and his interaction with the other veterans in the program, who provide support and camaraderie.
"I still have my moments," he said, "but that's what Pegasus Farm is for, to help us get through those moments."
Each Wednesday afternoon, the Veterans' Salute program offers veterans the opportunity to interact with horses and participate in riding, carriage driving or unmounted horsemanship. In building those skills, the participants gain confidence and develop trust, explained Tammi Gainer, the farm's equestrian director.
They also learn appropriate ways to respond to challenges. Instead of reacting with anger or frustration to an uncooperative horse, the veterans learn to take a step back and figure out a better approach — a technique that carries over to their everyday lives, she said.
Then there's the bond that builds between veterans and horses, a mutually beneficial relationship that participants and farm staff alike find hard to explain.
"These horses, they basically get to know you like you know them," said Eric McGill, a veteran from Uniontown who has been participating in the program for six or seven years.
"If you have a problem, these horses help you. … It's like someone to talk to, almost like a friend," he said.
The benefits of that relationship were at the heart of Riding My Way Back, a short film that was shown at the recent event. The film tells the story of Aaron Heliker, who suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder during multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and was saved from the brink of suicide by the bond he developed with a therapy horse.
After the film, visitors got the chance to visit some of Pegasus Farm's horses in their stalls.
It didn't take long for Jeff Murray to befriend Smokey, who nuzzled the Canton, Ohio, man's face as he gently stroked the horse's neck.
Murray had come to the program because of his fiancee's daughter, 22-year-old Sarah Hawke, who recently resumed riding in a different therapeutic program at Pegasus Farm after five years spent studying at the Ohio State School for the Blind.
But Murray found his own interest piqued.
He grew up on farms, he said, and he's always had an affinity for animals. He's also a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, so Veterans' Salute intrigued him.
"They don't tell you you're right or wrong," he said of the horses. "They don't talk back."
Veterans' Salute is free and open to all veterans.