Friday, April 23, 2010

Therapeutic riding gives injured vets a lift

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In the picture, Ret. Lt. Col. Helen Horn rides Puddin’, a Belgian quarter horse, as part of the Horses for Heroes program at Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wentzville, Mo.

WENTZVILLE, Mo. — Puddin', a Belgian quarter horse, is a lot like her namesake. Her soft coat is toffee-colored and accentuated by a frothy, vanilla mane and tail. Her gentle brown eyes are sweeter than molasses. And so is her demeanor.

But unlike the dessert, which can lead to a pudgy midsection, Puddin' the horse helps strengthen weakened abdominal muscles, says Lt. Col. Helen Horn, a retired Air Force veteran paralyzed from the waist down.

"Especially when I let go of the saddle horn, and when she turns corners," she said. "I really have to find my center of balance."

Horn, 54, of Belleville, is the first local veteran to take part in a nationwide program called Horses for Heroes. She rides Puddin' once a week at Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wentzville.

Sandy Rafferty, co-founder and program director of Therapeutic Horsemanship, has been trying to get a local Horses for Heroes program established at Veterans Affairs at Jefferson Barracks for some time.

She learned about it in 2007, after it was created by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association in conjunction with Veterans Affairs. Today, 31 programs nationwide serve veterans and personnel who have physical and mental wounds.

Rafferty approached officials at the Jefferson Barracks location three years ago about starting the program and said they were interested until they learned that they'd have to pay for the therapy. Typically, the nonprofit organization charges clients $350 to $650 for 12 weeks, which is about 25 percent of the group's actual cost. So Rafferty dropped the idea.

Recently, it came up for discussion again. So did the notion to subsidize 8-week sessions for veterans using proceeds from fundraisers, private donations and corporate sponsorships.

Now, Rafferty said, they're taking care of liability issues, but she's confident that Horses for Heroes will be up and running shortly.

"Our VA wants to see a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding from existing programs at other VAs," she said. "It's a contract with a release of liability, that said they would not be responsible for any injuries that result."

In the meantime, Rafferty says, Veterans can sign up as individuals without going through Veteran's Affairs.

Research has shown that because horses and people have similar gaits, riding causes the human spine and pelvis to move in a natural way, something that wouldn't otherwise happen in those who have certain disabilities. The movements help improve balance, coordination, overall strength and muscle tone.

Experts also maintain that, from a mental standpoint, interaction with horses boosts self-confidence and acts as a catalyst for setting and reaching goals in other areas of the riders' lives.

Horn rides Puddin' every Tuesday afternoon for about 25 minutes.

"That's the limit for me before I start getting pressure sores," she said. "My doctor is very concerned about pressure sores and spinal cord issues."

Horn, a nurse practitioner, had been in the Air Force for 20 years, when she was deployed to Kuwait four years ago. She served at a medical way station for injured soldiers coming out of Iraq and suffered a ruptured disc while unloading a wounded soldier from an aircraft in July 2006.

She was experiencing pain — in her chest, inexplicably — but still able to walk two years later when she had surgery to remove the disc. She hasn't walked since.

She spends a lot of time with therapists, inside a swimming pool, working on parallel bars, strapped into a robotic device called an auto ambulator that mimics a walking gait and is now trying to maintain her balance on horseback.

Her doctor has told her that her spine is healing at about an inch a month, she said. "The goal right now is to get me on a walker at home. I don't want the (wheel)chair to define me, and getting up on a horse is significant. I just have to keep pushing, and the more modalities I can use, the better."

Horn was riding Puddin' for the second time one recent afternoon with therapists flanking the slow-sauntering mare as they moved in circles. She tossed rings onto a pole held by Rafferty, who followed nearby.

"They're to get her to concentrate on something other than just sitting there," said volunteer Sandy Huebner, who watched from the middle of the ring. "Right now, she's very tight. If you take her mind off that and put it on to something else, her body will relax and do its job."

Rafferty instructed the therapists to do some surprise halts.

Stopping suddenly and rounding corners forces Horn to find her center of balance and contract her core muscles.

"It's certainly better than doing reps in physical therapy," she said later.

Ben Brown, also an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam during the war, was watching and listening intently. He hopes to one day guide Horses for Heroes around the arena. But first he has to learn, listen and help clean stables.

"I think the military and the Department of Defense are more in tune with the minds of the individuals coming back," said Brown, 66, of Weldon Spring. "And (if these veterans) can see a benefit from it, and it gives them hope that they will get better, they might not be so dependent on their crutches or their wheelchairs and be a player rather than sit on the sidelines."

When the session was finished, the therapists guided Puddin' alongside a saddle-high ramp and helped Horn dismount. They carefully lowered her body into her wheelchair.

Getting off the horse is easy, Horn said. Getting on, well, that's another story. It was easier this week after she figured out that if she put her left leg — the weaker, less functional of the two — over Puddin's back, and placed her stronger right leg in the stirrup, she could hoist her body up over and not be dead weight for the therapists.

"The first time, I wasn't even sure it was worth it," she said. "I was exhausted by the time I got on the horse."

A few minutes later, Horn was holding a big blue plastic bowl containing pieces of apples and carrots up to the mare's mouth.

"Right now, it's me learning the horse, and the horse learning me," she said. "She's a good horse, though."