Horses for Heroes helps Guard Soldiers enhance resilience

Story by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

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Sgt. Cody Stagner, Sgt. 1st. Class Craig Quisenberry and 1st Lt. Stephen Lawson with their new friend Nathan. Nathan is part of the Horses for Heroes program, which is run by Central Kentucky Riding for Hope. The program helped Kentucky National Guard Soldiers as they explored ways of building resilience in the wake of wartime deployments. (Photo by 1st Lt. Rob Cooley, Kentucky National Guard Resilience Program)

Click here for more information on Central Kentucky Riding for Hope and Horses for Heroes.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Kentucky National Guard Resilience Team teamed up with new friends for some very unique training recently at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.

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2nd Lt. Chris McGhee, 198th Military Police Battalion, take a little time to bond with Messenger. A member of the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, Messenger helped Kentucky National Guard Soldiers as they explored coping with emotional or internal conflict, personal relationships, mental agility and strength of character as part of their resilience training. (Photo by 1st Lt. Rob Cooley, Kentucky National Guard Resilience Program)

Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, a 30 year-old non-profit is a Premier Accredited Center of PATH Int’l (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) with the mission of enriching the community by improving the quality of life and health of individuals with special physical, cognitive, emotional or social needs through therapeutic activities with the horse.

“In a state known for our beautiful horses, horsemanship, and world famous horse riding and racing facilities, it just makes sense to explore ways to blend this rich part of our culture, into our Resilience Training Program,” said 1st Lt. Rob Cooley, Kentucky’s Resilience Coordinator.  “It didn’t take much digging to find this great team and it turns out they were looking for an opportunity to work with the military as well.”

Denise Spittler is the program director for CKHR.

“Our focus is to develop programs that help veterans transition back into the community, family and work-place,” she said.  “We also focus on helping the family during this transition.  Simply said ‘just getting back to living’.”

In 2010, CKRH began the Horses for Heroes program with the objective of enhancing outcomes and improving the quality of life for veterans and their families post deployment by providing equine assisted activities.

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Central Kentucky Riders for Hope Program Director Denise Spittler coaches 1st Lt. Robert Cooley as he gets to know Chewey. A member of Horses for Heroes, Chewey helped Kentucky National Guard Soldiers as they explored coping with emotional or internal conflict, personal relationships, mental agility and strength of character as part of their resilience training. (Photo by 1st Lt. Stephen Lawson, Kentucky National Guard Resilience Program)

The approach is unique: Soldiers work with a horse to develop skills that will help them transition back to community, family and life; develop skills for interpersonal relationships; accept physiological changes; identify worldview changes; develop and achieve life goals.

Equine assisted activities and therapies offered at CKRH include therapeutic horsemanship (non-mounted); therapeutic riding (mounted); psycho- educational (non-mounted); psychotherapy (non-mounted); therapeutic carriage driving.

The Resilience Training Assistant course at the horse park took place during a four day period.  Students were presented with the resilience training in both the classroom and equine setting.  The training consists of identifying and explaining the six core competencies, which are the foundation of resilience training:  self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strengths of character, and connection followed by a series of subsequent skills that reinforce the competencies.

Each of the four days of training was topped off by Spittler introducing the classroom concepts and skills through CKRH’s metaphoric and therapeutic equine environments.  Horses ranging from 800 to 1,400 pounds were utilized to help strengthen the impact of training.

One of the videos shown during the course was a Veteran’s Day public service announcement initiated by Jane Beshear, wife of Gov. Steve Beshear.  Mrs. Beshear, it turns out, was a CKRH volunteer and advocate prior to gracefully stepping into her role as Kentucky’s First Lady.

“A key part of our state’s overall equine legacy is how we incorporate horses into our daily lives” explained the First Lady. “Horses for Heroes is one more example of how Kentucky is the horse capital of the world.”

“It was an honor for CKRH to be the host site for this resiliency training,” said Spittler.  “The experience with Guard Members was an energizing and educational experience.  It was powerful to see how this group of leaders is motivated to help other Kentucky National Guard members.”

“It was interesting experiencing military training in such an unconventional manner,” said 2nd Lt. Chris McGhee, incoming executive officer for Charlie Company, Wounded Warrior Battalion at Fort Knox.  “Each day the classroom and equine environments meshed in a manner that allowed us to immediately test, apply, and evaluate the effectiveness of the course, leading to a deeper understanding of the training concepts.”

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Nathan patiently grazes while members of the Kentucky resilience team discuss the lessons they learned during a four day training session at the Kentucky Horse Park. A member of the Horses for Heroes program, Nathan helped Soldiers as they explored coping with emotional or internal conflict, personal relationships, mental agility and strength of character. (Photo by 1st Lt. Rob Cooley, Kentucky National Guard Resilience Program)

Combining resilience training with the equine therapy is “good stuff,” according to Capt. Melissa Mattingly, Headquarters, 103rd Battalion Support Brigade.

“Horses show you things about yourself that you may not be able to realize on your own,” said Mattingly.  “They allow you to cut through walls built around ourselves as defense mechanisms and helps expose what is underneath.”

“I gained an understanding from the horse about signals that I may or may not be sending, and I feel the interaction with the horse helps to better read people and relationships. That gave me an opportunity to look at the situation as a metaphor, as was explained to the class.”

“The Kentucky National Guard is doing a phenomenal job with their resilience program,” said Spittler.  “I was really impressed by the passion of their students and their staff.  Just the short time I spent with them I can see that they are committed to making a difference.”

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