Horses helping heroes: Equine therapy helps veterans adjust, heal from war injuries

Noe ‘Lito’ Santos, an Army Iraq veteran, cleans Seemore’s hooves as a group of veterans gather to participate in the Horses and Heroes program in Orlando, Florida.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Dave Vernaza came close to death while serving in Iraq. Eight years ago, a mortar shell fired by insurgents exploded near him at a base in Ramadi.

He refers to the day it happened as his "Live Day" because he survived. Five of his fellow Navy Seabees did not.

Vernaza suffered shrapnel wounds, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, like many returning veterans, he's prone to anxiety and feels unsafe in public. But he's finding refuge and healing from his injuries in an unlikely place - on horseback.

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Vernaza, a 40-year-old Orlando, Fla., resident, is one of eight veterans who are part of Horses for Heroes, a project that aims to help wounded warriors recover through interaction with the animals and each other. On a recent day at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Fla., the eight men talked softly and groomed their horses as they prepared to ride. They brushed out their mounts' horseshoes, then patted them down and saddled them up before heading to a nearby field.

The men, veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, had been riding for just eight weeks, but they trotted around easily, moving in a pattern one onlooker likened to "a square dance on horseback."

"It's allowed me to do something that's enjoyable, that relieves the anxiety and creates a bond with fellow veterans in an environment that feels safe," Vernaza said. "It frees my mind from an everyday battle that I struggle with."

Horses for Heroes is a collaboration of the University of Central Florida's College of Medicine and the equine-therapy groups Heavenly Hoofs, in Kissimmee, and S.A.D.L.E.S., in Eustis, Fla.

Manette Monroe, a physician and an assistant professor of pathology at the university who is leading an effort to build a permanent equine-therapy center for veterans, said the group already was showing benefits. "Their self-confidence is through the roof," she said. "It's amazing to see them developing and blossoming."

The action of riding builds core strength. Stronger backs and abdomens help those with severe physical injuries - one man in the group, Noe "Lito" Santos, had a leg amputated at the hip - as they learn to stand and walk again.

But another key benefit is emotional. Longtime equestrians say horses are intuitive and forgiving.

"Horses pay attention to their leader, and the human is the leader; if the human is calm, the horse is calm," Monroe said. "(The vets are) learning better to deal with the situations that cause them stress."

Cliff Bruton, 46, of Orlando, Fla., is living proof of the benefits. He served 20 years in the Navy, including time in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operations. When he retired, he had trouble adjusting.

"I found myself becoming reclusive," Bruton said. "I shut the world out."

Riding with the group, Bruton said, "takes us out of our comfort zone."

With help from their horses and each other, the men are finding their way back from the war zone.

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