Gary was one of the first participants in Saddles & Salutes, a special program we started about a year ago to help Veterans experiencing physical, emotional, and community reintegration challenges.
Saddles and Salutes uses riding and working with horses to naturally reduce Veterans’ anxiety and stress, and create a sense of peace and contentment. The horse provides a non-threatening, trusting open relationship. The horse is non-judgmental and does not have expectations of the Veteran when connecting with them. The horse also provides an increase of physical and cognitive abilities which leads to a strengthening of independence to progress in daily life skills.
When Gary first came to us he had overall weakness, PTSD issues, hearing impairment, and dementia. He lacked confidence, was very hesitant around the horses, and had difficulty following directions. Our primary goals for Gary were to build confidence and to increase core strength. We didn’t know if he would ever be able to ride independently.
In the beginning, Gary was always in a great mood and looked forward to his time at the barn. During his sessions, a volunteer lead Gary’s horse on the lead line while Gary worked with his Equine Specialist to complete the daily objectives. He spent a lot of time talking about his time in the Navy and although he sometimes experienced depression, by the end of the session he was always in a better frame of mind.
Gary’s wife Paula shared with us that Gary would be happy and talkative about the upcoming lesson for days before his session. On the day of his session and a day or two after, he would have even more great days. Paula commented, “This is the one treatment that he has been excited about since day one. He always looks forward to going each week and it is such a lift to his spirits.”
Despite his progress, Gary’s dementia worsened due to the effects of a trial medication and his good moods decreased. Although he came to the barn severely depressed he was always willing to try until the side effects of the medication became so severe that Gary was unable to attend sessions. When he returned, he began having more difficulty maintaining correct posture in the saddle.
Gary and his team at Shining Hope Farms did not give up. They all kept working and little by little the old Gary came back. He was more focused during his time in the saddle. He developed much better core strength and could maintain correct posture.
Today, Gary has defied the odds remarkably no longer needs the lead line. He controls his horse and maneuvers through various obstacles and patterns. With direction, Gary performs basic riding skills and, on most days, he follows directions with minimal issues.
“Having both PTSD and dementia Gary has difficulty processing things. The riding makes him listen closely to the instruction, process the instruction and then carry it out,” says Paula. Paula sees Gary’s behavior and cognitive functioning improve on the days he has lessons, even though his dementia is worsening. She is so thankful for our program as Gary’s improvement is a benefit for her, as well. “With Gary’s diagnosis it can be extremely depressing. I know on Tuesday when he goes to ride that it will be a ‘good day.’”
The benefits of our Saddles & Salutes Veterans’ program extend far beyond horsemanship skills. As Paula says, “It lifts Gary’s spirits when he feels that there are still things in which he can participate and still things he can learn.” The riding lesson gives Veterans like Gary something to look forward to, provides pleasant experiences, and forms new positive memories as a rider bonds with their horse. It’s also an opportunity for camaraderie with other Veterans in group lessons. Veterans are not just learning about horses, they are learning about each other and many of our Veterans often form a bond outside of the riding arena.
Hope for the Future
“My hope is that he will continue to have those ‘good days.’ When a day isn’t good, knowing there will be more good days makes the difficult days easier to deal with,” says Paula.
None of this would be possible without our Equine partners — our gentle giants. Would you consider giving $24 to feed Gary’s horse Zane? $24 will feed Zane for an entire week!
The goal for this #GivingTuesdayCLT is to feed all of the “Gentle Giants that Help Our Clients,” so that Veterans like Gary (and the other participants we serve) can continue receiving their horses’ amazing benefits (the majority, with no out of pocket costs to their family).