A Story of Hope: Returned Veteran's Life Changed by Horses Helping Heroes Program at GHETC

Erick Hernandez, 30, was an aircraft machinist’s mate in the U. S. Navy immobilized with a spinal cord injury. Hernandez is one of more than 180 returned veterans whose lives are being changed through the Horses Helping Heroes program at Good Hope Equestrian Training Center (GHETC).

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Erick Hernandez, 30, was an aircraft machinist’s mate in the U. S. Navy immobilized with a spinal cord injury.

Research has shown that equine activities benefit disabled participants through increased mobility, improved balance, posture and core strength, as well as enhanced coordination and flexibility.

Miami, Fla (PRWEB) December 20, 2012

Erick Hernandez, 30, was an aircraft machinist’s mate in the U. S. Navy immobilized with a spinal cord injury. But one day in early November he was stepping onto a platform and grooming the smooth coat of a handsome paint horse on a peaceful country ranch – about as far from the carrier flight deck as you can be.

Hernandez is one of more than 180 returned veterans whose lives are being changed through the Horses Helping Heroes program at Good Hope Equestrian Training Center (GHETC). Using the power of equine-assisted activities to aid in the rehabilitation of service men and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury, GHETC is dedicated in meeting the rehabilitative needs of the veterans across South Florida.

“Our research has shown that equine activities benefit disabled participants through increased mobility, improved balance, posture and core strength, as well as enhanced coordination and flexibility,” said Brooke E. Westmoreland, MS/OTR, the therapist from the Spinal Cord unit of the Bruce W. Carter Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Miami. “Not only does working with horses improve the veterans physically; it also increases self-confidence, communication, trust and anxiety reduction, as well as decreased feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses,” she added.

On a recent day at Good Hope farm, seven veterans including Hernandez had a fabulous day riding, as well as caring and grooming for their equine partner. The group represented several different services: Nafiz Mohammed had served aboard ship in Iraq, Robert Barker and Dennis Mahan were Army veterans, and Fernando Delbusto was an Army top Sargeant in the Vietnam War.

“The horse's movement at the walk is three-dimensional, which precisely mirrors the movements of the human pelvis. When a person sits upright on the back of their equine partner, these three human pelvic movements are duplicated naturally without effort on the rider's part. The horse's natural power has great benefits for a person who cannot walk.,” Westmoreland said, “so in re-learning to walk, riding horses is helping these vets. Riding is also a great confidence builder for those shaken by combat, and suffering from low self-esteem because they survived and many of their buddies didn’t.”

Only a quarter of the vets at Good Hope have previously participated in any equestrian activities prior to enrolling into the program. “Once each rider demonstrates the ability to control their horse at the walk and the trot,” explained Peggy Bass, GHETC Executive Director, ‘the veterans are able to move from the riding ring to the on-site trails course. These sessions help the participants with impulse modulation, independence and relaxation, which in return helps them to connect and effectively communicate with their designated horse.”

The horse’s relationship with mankind has advanced over the course of history. The horse has been a companion, transportation, a performer and a magnificent symbol.

“Now cast in the role of co-psychotherapist, the horse in programs like Good Hope’s veterans therapy are springing up throughout the country as more and more soldiers and sailors return home from war,” Bass said. “Because they are prey animals, they are finely tuned into their surroundings; much like the veterans who have used this trait for their survival in combat. Horses are honest and kind animals, which makes them especially powerful messengers. If they trust you, they will migrate toward you rather than retreating out of fear. They react to and mirror the emotions of humans directly, without words. Many of the veterans have expressed that they were able to parallel their natural horsemanship activities to real life situations,” she said.

The majority (72 per cent) of the project participants are from the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) departments, as well as past war heroes (28 per cent) receiving services through the Veterans Administration’s programs.

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Editor’s Note: Good Hope is a bucolic setting where 400 disabled children, youth and adults find hope and independence though working with horses. The organization's 20 acres facility is located in Southwest Miami-Dade County (Redlands), and includes well immaculate stables boarding 13 program horses, 10 open paddocks, two riding areas, a sensory horse trail, an outdoor picnic area, accessible restrooms and a clubhouse designed to meet the Americans for Disabilities Act. Dr. Bass’ staff consists of five PATH certified riding instructors, 14 program assistants and an Equine Instructional Specialist, all of whom have a combined total of more than 85 years experience within the therapeutic riding field.

Notably, Good Hope serves as the only facility in Miami-Dade County, and one of 11 in Florida, accredited as a Premier center through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) program. Recognizing Good Hope’s excellence in administrative and service delivery methodologies that promote quality industry standards and evidence-based equine assisted activities for individuals with disabilities, the agency has been recognized as a Premier Accredited Center by PATH Intl., formerly known as NARHA (North American Ridding for the Handicapped Association), since 2001.

The Good Hope is a 501©(3) non-profit and the Horses Helping Heroes project is solely funded by the Miami Foundation, Dr. John T. MacDonald Foundation, as well as private and corporate donations.