Saddle up soldier

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Throughout their shared history, horses have had a long and storied partnership with warriors. Bucephalus was so loved by Alexander the Great, he named a city after him. Comanche is cited as the lone survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Then there’s one of the most famous war horses ever, Staff Sergeant Reckless.

Purchased for $250 off a Korean racetrack in Seoul, Reckless was trained by the 1st Marine Division as a packhorse. A camp favorite, she quickly distinguished herself by not needing a handler as she traveled the supply route to deliver needed supplies. During the Battle for Outpost Vegas, Reckless made 51 solo trips in one day (despite being wounded twice) to carry supplies and weapons while evacuating wounded soldiers. The horse earned a battlefield promotion to corporal. She later was promoted to staff sergeant by the Marine Corp Commandant and awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corp Good Conduct Medal.

It is this tradition of equine valor and partnership that Dandy, a 19-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, and his stable mates will join. They have enlisted in the ranks of horses, like Staff Sergeant Reckless, who make a difference in the lives of their warriors.

You will be able to meet Dandy (and one of his veterans) at the 2017 Washington State Horse Expo at the Clark County Event Center March 3-5.

Dandy is part of the Windhaven Therapeutic Riding non-profit program in La Center. He and his team of people are dedicated to healing active duty military and veterans suffering from the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and other service-related injuries.

Newly opening their barn doors to veterans, this program has been two years in the making. “Twenty-six months ago, my wife and I drove up to Yelm, Washington, on Thanksgiving Day to meet Debi Fisher and Bob Woelk, founders of Rainier Therapeutic Riding,” said Rodger Morrison, board chairman and operation manager for Windhaven.

A veteran himself, Morrison was a commissioned officer who served seven years in the Medical Service Corp. He says his wife, Denice Larson-Morrison, who also served in the military as a USN combat medic from 1979 to 1983, is passionate about helping veterans.

After the Navy, Larson-Morrison earned her nursing degree. She has been a trauma nurse for 25 years and is a certified neurological registered nurse.

“Because of her personal awareness of the high percentage of our warriors returning home to the USA suffering from PTSD and TBI,” Morrison said, “she is dedicated to helping wounded warriors suffering from PTSD/TBI. Treatment of these warriors with the standard regimen of drugs is not working. Around 20 veterans and active duty personnel are committing suicide every day because the standard forms of treatment are failing.”

A life-long equestrian, Larson-Morrison began searching for something that would help these veterans. Her search led them to Rainier Therapeutic Riding on that Thanksgiving Day in 2014.

Her interest continued beyond the initial meeting.

“I drove up every Sunday for six months to internship with Debi and Bob,” Morrison said. “I wanted to learn the best way to run a horse therapeutic riding program from the ground up.”

A former hospital administrator, Morrison says that he leaves most of the training of the horses and understanding the medical issues to the experts — his wife and Windhaven’s trainer, William Avery.

“I am the guy in the background that likes to make sure that all things fit from the beginning instead of going back later with a hatchet to make it fit. In the long run, it is easier on the volunteer staff and our veterans. Planning is important and finding the right persons for critical positions promotes teamwork and helps assure success,” Morrison said.

The next step was building the right team — horses, volunteers and board members.

“Many of our volunteers are nurses or have a medical background. Some came to us with an equestrian background, and some had to learn natural horsemanship from the ground up. Just like the troops we serve,” Morrison said.

In order to produce a program that will do well from the beginning, a basic framework based on successful programs was needed. This was achieved by following the exact standards set forth by PATH (The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). This national organization has exacting standards for the horses, volunteers, facility, equine transport, record keeping, insurance and ongoing training.

Windhaven also uses Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) for the behavioral sciences aspect of treating PTSD.

“I would also like to give a special shout out to our farrier Bill Hesler, a USMC veteran who donates a lot of his expertise and Saddle Maker Brent Skills, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran who is making us customized tack to fit our special needs,” Morrison said.

“In therapeutic riding programs with veterans, one of the consistent problems is that horses get tired and irritable from the stress of this intense interaction. This limits the horses to only about three hours per day of interaction with the troops. Each horse is evaluated on a regular basis for signs that they are mentally set to perform this interaction.”

The groundwork is now in place. Staff, volunteers and horses are all ready, and a good working relationship with the local Veterans Affairs office has been established. The barn was opened on Jan. 21 to the first group of veterans, who started what will be an eight-week program.

“The first sessions could not have gone better,” said Morrison. “I was particularly happy about the overwhelming positive reactions from our first group of veterans.”

“Our horses are the therapists. They connect with veterans on a different level than humans or even other animals.”

“From the moment I met Diesel, I felt connected for the first time in a long time,” said Charles, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran suffering from PTSD who took part in the trial sessions last fall.

Diesel is a Keiger mustang gelding, who, along with Dandy, is one of the therapy horses at Windhaven.

“PTSD really separates you from people. You do not feel connected to anybody or anything,” said Charles. “I felt the most amazing sense of calm wash over me as soon as we touched.”

It is his hope that with more exposure to the horse therapy, he will eventually feel able to connect with people again.

According to Lawson-Morrison, horse therapy has proven to help veterans emotionally, build confidence and rebuild leadership and communication skills.

“As an added bonus, many of the veterans are in the prime of their lives. They are warriors, risk takers. They love the adventure of riding horses,” she said.

For Dandy, life has come full circle. He was in really bad shape before meeting Morrison. He had been kept locked up in a stall for two years, only very occasionally being let out.

“His muscles were so atrophied it took several months of hand walking before I attempted to ride him. And that was only for 100 yards. One of my proudest moments was when Dandy was fit enough to go on a 22-mile search and rescue ride,” Morrison said.

Now Dandy is giving back.

It is his turn to “rescue” someone.

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