Horses helping veterans manage battle wounds

AFP Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (July 8, 2014) — The Mid-Atlantic region is home to tens of thousands of military men and women who’ve fought through some of the longest and deadliest wars in United States history.
And while troops may be physically withdrawn from battle zones, for many, the war rages on inside.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are the so-called “signature wounds” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But getting help for these complicated neurological conditions isn’t easy.
Ask Sarah Williams, an Army veteran who served through two tours in Iraq.
Both she and her husband, who she met and served with in Iraq, suffer from PTSD. But rather than let it define who she is, Williams has decided to do something to not just help herself, but her fellow wounded warriors.
About a year ago, Williams founded Operation Warrior Refuge, an equine assisted psychotherapy, or EAP, program geared towards veterans, active military and first responders.
Her co-founders are Diane McKissick, a licensed clinical social worker with more than 10 years experience in EAP, and Julie Devine, a seasoned horse trainer who also holds a Masters in counseling psychology, with concentration in equine assisted mental health.
Operation Warrior Refuge is based in Southern Maryland, at Greenwell State Park in Saint Mary’s County.
They have a cooperative partnership with the Greenwell Foundation, to use some of the horses and facilities for their programs.
“Sarah called me out of the blue and said she wanted to do horse therapy,” McKissick said. “Julie and I had been practicing EAP together, focused on families and emotionally disturbed kids, for about seven years. We thought this was the perfect next step, so we said ‘Yeah, let’s start it.’”
There are several different forms of equine assisted therapy. Operation Warrior Refuge follows the EAGALA Model, which both Diane and Julie are certified in.
Rather than teach riding or horsemanship, practitioners of the EAGALA Model focus on the interactions between the horse and the individual.
“The great thing about equine therapy, is that it doesn’t require you to talk,” said Williams. “Every time you go to a new therapist, you have to start all over again. And there’s no consistency.
“With the horse, it’s straight to the point. The horse will show you what’s going on.”
One of the four foundational components of the EAGALA Model, is the team approach. Each session includes the horse, along with a licensed mental health professional and credentialed equine specialist.
Operation Warrior Refuge is unique in that both Julie and Diane have the clinical experience as well as the equine specialty.
Plus, they have Williams, a veteran with the first hand experience of serving in combat and struggling with PTSD.
Another aspect that makes the EAGALA Model unique is that it is solution oriented, McKissick said.
“We believe that individuals who come here already have the solutions to their problems. They just need help accessing them,” McKissick said.
She and Devine teach basic safety and provide feedback, but there is very little structure to a therapy session.
“The horse acts as a mirror for our emotions, and becomes something else — a metaphor for what’s going on in our lives,” Devine said. “They perceive what we’re feeling and react immediately. ”
One of the challenges many people have is being able to manage and regulate emotions.
If you’re in a terrible mood and project that, the horse will react accordingly.
But, if you can change how you’re projecting an emotion, you’ll see an immediate change in the horse’s reaction.”
The real time feedback is important, especially for veterans, Williams said.
She sees Operation Warrior Refuge as a way to help individual veterans deal with PTSD-symptoms and repair relationships with their families, but also as a way to rebuild a community that is often damaged when a soldier returns home from war.
“Our philosophy is reboot, retrain, renew and sustain. The idea is to create a community of veterans who can come together and support each other,” Williams said.
Eventually, the women hope to offer a series of workshops and retreats for veterans and their families.
Graduates will walk away with new tools to help deal with symptoms of PTSD and new friendships strengthened by the bonds of a shared experience.
But for now, the primary focus of the organization is reaching out to veterans promoting the programs and services they offer.
More information is available at
“I know the mentality” veterans have, Williams said. “We’re taught to suck it up.
“Even for me, it’s hard to accept that I have something that can be debilitating. But I know that because I’m a mother, I have to get help for my kids and my husband.”
Williams said it’s usually the family members’ encouragement that makes the difference in veterans seeking help.
“There are a lot of people right here (in Southern Maryland) who are suffering and feel like they have nowhere to turn,” said McKissick. “We offer a service that is helpful and we do it really well. It feels good to know that we can give back something to those who’ve worked to keep us safe and those who continue to do so.”