On the road to healing

Story of service submitted by WSC AmeriCorps member Caitlyn Baird, who just recently completed her 2017-18 term of service.


Take a deep breath, feel your body relax, and begin to dance with your partner, the horse. These words echo around the arena on a chilly fall day in Spokane, Washington. Five riders (all veterans), five horses, seven volunteers, and two instructors compose the class. All five riders watch intently as Mark, one of the instructors, demonstrates how to desensitize their horses to the objects in the arena. It’s a peaceful scene, watching a bond form between these veterans and the horses they choose to work with and learn from. It’s a sight I am fortunate enough to help create for our veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country. My name is Caitlyn and I am a Washington Service Corps member at Free Rein Therapeutic Riding, serving as the Military Horsemanship Class Coordinator.

Through my time involved with the Military Horsemanship Program at Free Rein, I have had the opportunity to watch five veterans create genuine relationships with their horses and volunteers. These veterans come to us often suffering from Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), anxiety, impaired mobility and stability, and a lowered sense of confidence and self-efficacy. Among the issues our veteran population faces, suicide and depression can also be present in their daily lives.

There are many obstacles that can stand between our veterans and the life they want to live. The Military Horsemanship Program provides a therapeutic model of learning where we teach our riders horsemanship skills and the horses encourage the true healing to occur. I observed our veterans grow in confidence and trust; improve their core strength, balance, and mobility all through working with the horses. I have seen our veterans open up about issues they face in life and find a pace of healing among our horses. The horses, veterans, and volunteers begin this 10-week class as separate moving parts, but by the end they become a cohesive unit, each helping the other succeed.

Upon reflection of our last session, I am reminded of a rider, Jackie, who exemplified this program. Her time in the service left her with severe equilibrium imbalances among a few other physical deficiencies. When she first came to Free Rein, she was quiet and reserved, but she began opening up to her horse and volunteer as the session progressed. As we progressed to the riding phase of our program, we placed her with two side walkers to aid her with balance and provide her with proprioceptive inputs. When Jackie was standing on the ground, she was able to rationalize to herself that she was standing upright. However, when she got on her horse, the input she was receiving from the ground was no longer there. She sat on her horse every week feeling as if she was falling off. Through all of this she persevered, facing her fears and growing in confidence. By the end of the session, Jackie completed one of her goals to ride independently, no longer needing her side walkers for physical support. It wasn’t that her disability suddenly vanished, but that she was able to override her fear and adapt to the disability. Watching these riders gain part of their lives back that they had previously lost has been an eye-opening and incredibly rewarding experience. Over the course of 10 weeks, Jackie also began to open up with staff and volunteers. It was clear that she was building connections and finding a place of belonging in our community.

I grew up with horses and have observed first-hand the power these unique relationships can have. These patient equine partners are the backbone of Free Rein’s program and it is an honor to be a part of something that helps so many men and women in our community. It has been amazing watching these horses interact with our riders and help break them out of their shells and face the challenges they have in their lives. This position has helped reinforce my desire to continue in this line of work and progress on to become an Occupational Therapist. Working with our retired servicemen and women is just beginning to show me what true resiliency, courage, and determination can look like. My service in the Washington Service Corps has had an immense impact on my life.


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