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'Saddles For Soldiers' Program Finds Success Treating PTSD In Veterans Through Horse Bonding

SUNLAND ( — It is estimated that at least 22 war veterans, returned from duty, are killing themselves each day in the U.S. according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As more veterans begin returning home from combat zones overseas, the crucial necessity for rehabilitation programs, both psychological and spiritual in nature, becomes ever more pressing. In large numbers, troops coming home face the daunting, and often painful, task of re-acclimating themselves into every-day life. Often times, this is an insurmountable challenge.

Those men and women who find themselves emotionally or psychologically scarred from the trials of war widely find difficulty in locating the proper services owed them by society. In some cases, talking with a professional is not enough to teach these veterans how to cope with their experiences.

Peace, therefore, can sometimes only be found where it is least expected.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Shadow Hills community in Sunland is an equestrian center that offers veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a path to emotional stability through working with horses.

The 12-step "Saddles for Soldiers" program is designed specifically for veterans who have experienced problems in their attempts to reintegrate back into society. According to the program's website, "Saddles for Soldiers" is committed to assisting combat veterans deal with their traumas and helping them reestablish life skills by work with horses.

Iraq War veteran and Lancaster native Blade Anthony, who suffers from PTSD after serving as a combat medic with the United States Marine Corps for six years, recalls first joining the program.

"The first time I came, my first session, I was actually over there, in an arena, and you do these things [to get] the horse to bond, and I started thinking of things. I couldn't handle it," Anthony said. "So I threw down the rope and I said 'I don't want to do this, this is BS'. So I walked over to the fence, and the horse came up behind me, followed me, and put his big, giant muzzle, his head, on my shoulder. And I instantly said 'Get away from me', and smacked the horse. And, after I stopped crying, the horse just stood by me, the whole time, and took his head off [my shoulder]. So that was just one of so many experiences that are very positive — that have helped me."

According to Mental Health and Operations Manager Susan Kelejian, it was estimated between 2007 and 2009 that 25-40 percent of the 1.64 million service men and women deployed for Operation: Enduring Freedom and Operation: Iraqi Freedom suffered from PTSD or major depression.

The theory behind the program is that equine therapy creates a human/animal bond, which, according to Kelejian, is a common first step in reintegration to social norms.

Anthony says that, once he started regularly attending the program, he began to feel better. The nightmares that he had previously experienced on a nightly basis reportedly decreased by 75%.

"They have this spiritual, psychic ability," Anthony said of the horses. "And I don't normally talk like that, but I strongly feel that it pretty much saved my life."

Every Wednesday morning, veterans undergoing recovery are invited to begin their day with an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting along with the horse therapy program.

Owner and Equine specialist Johnny Higginson has run the "Saddles for Soldiers" program for five years with his own money. Higginson describes the changes he's seen in Anthony through the progress he's made with the program.

".. he has changed so much," Higginson said. "He is just so much more grounded than he used to be."

While the program, which is said to have as many as 20 veterans attend at times, has reportedly reached dozens of veterans over those five years, Susan Kelejian says that, too many times, no veterans show up.

"A good day is when veterans show up and accept the service that we provide for them, and really that's it. That's the good day," Kelejian said. "The non-good day is, providing the service and having the population not show up. I have to address that. This is an epidemic, and it doesn't start with the service providers. It starts with the stigma and the trauma that this population has gone through to even be able to get out of the house to return phone calls to go through the multitude of spider-webbed bureaucracy that's in the government to get them to fill out paperwork to come here. So with all that weighing on their head, on top of what they are diagnosed with and what they are living with, is really sporadic at best. So honestly, a good day is having veterans show up, because we know what we are doing, and we know that this treatment helps."

The lack of attendance in this and in similar programs may be explained  in part by the fact that many people, including some of the returning veterans themselves, are unaware that they are suffering.

"There are a lot of people who don't know we are hurting. There are a lot of us who won't admit it," Anthony said. "For a marine, we always say 'Suck it up'. You don't know you are hurting, you just keep going on. I went to the VA (Veterans Affairs) on Sepulveda. I did all that stuff, but this really, really helped me."

PTSD is an increasingly alarming issue for veterans trying to move on with their lives. Many of those who serve return home seeking peace, only to be faced with a new battle of re-acclimation. For some, therapeutic horse riding may be a way of finding that peace and escaping the pain of the past.

Anthony sums up how the program has helped him as a veteran by reading from a poem that is displayed on a wall at the facility.

"When you feel weak, let me help you build strength. When you can't find your voice, let us speak without words. When you cannot reach, let me raise you above the world. When you want to give up, let me show you how far you can go."

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