When a young Marine amputee recently came to Lift Me Up! Therapeutic Riding Center in Great Falls, Va., he said he’d been told he could probably never ride horses again.
“I said, ‘No — you can ride. We’ll help you,’ ” said Georgia Bay Corey, program director for Lift Me Up! “(I tell amputees) if you don’t have two good legs, we’ll give you four. And then they get to ride down the road, and it’s just amazing.”
Bay Corey’s 6-acre farm is home to 13 horses and five instructors who help children and adults with disabilities get back in the saddle. The center has earned a premier accreditation from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship for its work. Now a growing number of her clients are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.
The veterans work on rebuilding both their physical and mental strength.
“Some of them need to rebuild their coordination, getting their body back,” she said. “One of the things we work on is independence, helping them rebuild a sense of ‘I can do this.’ ”
Patients also bond with the animals they’re riding, Bay Corey said. That often results in improved social interaction from the rider, she said.
“Some of them actually find some security,” Bay Corey said. “They get the locomotion without falling off. There also is sort of a sense of regaining control. You’ve had all these issues and you’ve come back, and now you’re sitting on a horse that weighs 1,700 pounds and you’re telling it what to do and he’s doing it.”
Therapeutic riding helps heal a wide variety of conditions, experts say. Veterans suffering from two of the most common conditions associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder — stand to benefit on multiple levels, said Kaye Marks, director of marketing and communications for PATH International.
“It tears your heart, but it ends on such a happy note,” Marks said. “It’s not just a recreational kind of thing. It’s going to help their bodies; it’s going to help their minds; it’s going to help their spirits.”
An increasing number of therapeutic riding centers are adding war veterans to their client roster, Marks said.
“The field is definitely growing,” she said. “Sadly, it’s growing faster than we can keep up with.”
More than 800 centers across the country are certified by PATH International. In 2009, 89 of those centers served injured veterans. In 2010, that almost doubled to 154. Marks expects 2011 totals to be close to 200. Last year, 47,877 children and adults participated in therapeutic riding centers; people on a waiting list for therapy numbered near 6,000.
“It really has taken off in earnest recently because of the numbers (of injured service members) coming back,” Marks said.
But availability and funding for veterans-centered therapeutic riding programs vary from location to location because Veterans Affairs centers across the country enter into their own local contracts, she said.
However, PATH International is currently forging “partnerships with other well-respected national organizations so there will be funding available to help actual participants,” Marks said. She said centers across the country are eager to add more war wounded to their clientele to meet the growing demand.
“We want that to be a lot more,” she said of current veteran therapy client numbers. “We want to get these folks in saddles. I think that’s going to be happening.”