Horses for Heroes offers special therapy for veterans

Posted December 5, 2012

School of Communication
University of Miami

“I got shot in February of 1999 and, when I finally came out of the coma after six months, they had to teach me how to do everything, walk, talk, and all that. But I just went back home and started working with my horses again. Now you can’t get me to shut up,” said Tony Boise, a self-described jarhead that worked around horses while he was growing up.

Tony Boise volunteers at a child's hippotherapy session at Bit by Bit's Pompano location (Photos by Miraisy Rodriguez).

Tony Boise volunteers at a child’s hippotherapy session at Bit by Bit’s Pompano location (Photos by Miraisy Rodriguez).

Tall, just short of too thin, and outgoing, Boise is a regular volunteer at Bit by Bit’s Pompano Beach therapeutic riding center. Although it was his wife who found the center while browsing the Internet, he has participated in the center’s “Horses for Heroes” programming.

“There’s nothing that helps out like [riding],” said Boise. “Horses will respect you if you respect them. They give you what you give them. If you’re good to the horse the horse will be good to you.”

Tabitha Aragon, a certified therapist and recreational specialist with the Miami VA Healthcare System, would agree.

“Equestrian therapy is used as part of the recreational therapy program of veterans that have an interest in horses or want to try it because it’s something new,” she said. “We use it to get veterans to interact socially. It’s an exercise in trust building. They have to trust the horses, the trainers, and even me.”

Everyone, from Boise to Aragon and the trainers at Bit by Bit, agrees that the benefits to be gained from equine-assisted therapy are immense.

“There’s a lot of benefit from the ride itself,” said Morgan Duty, an occupational therapy assistant at Bit by Bit that usually works with children. “For example, slow movements help get posture straighter.”

Still, there is some discord about the type of therapy and benefits the veterans are receiving at Bit by Bit.

“Therapeutic horseback riding is a riding session for people with special needs done by a Path certified instructor, but it’s not a therapy session, it’s more of a riding session,” said Susan March, a physical therapist and program director at Bit by Bit. “That’s about 20 percent of what we do. Hippotherapy is a session that’s always done with a therapist … it’s a medical therapy session. I would like [Horses for Heroes] to become hippotherapy, but we’re having difficulty with the VA getting that piece.”

One reason for that difficulty may be that the VA system seeks out, classifies, and offers equestrian therapy options, like Bit by Bit’s Horses for Heroes, as part of its veterans’ recreational therapy programs.

An annual Halloween Horse Show and Spring golf tournament are part of the effort to raise funds for the Horses for Heroes program, but this year's fundraising goal has not yet been met.

An annual Halloween Horse Show and Spring golf tournament are part of the effort to raise funds for the Horses for Heroes program, but this year’s fundraising goal has not yet been met.

“The point of recreation therapy is to focus on what motivates you. It’s enjoyable for [the veterans] to do. They’re not focused on what happened in war or bills,” said Aragon. “If it were something we could do more frequently, it would also help people with physical and cognitive issues … it leads to increased focus and attention span in people with brain injuries.”

Bit by Bit, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, offers Horses for Heroes to veterans completely free of charge. However, it has been having trouble with fundraising.

“We overspent approximately $44,000 in 2010-11 on launching this program and that revenue was pulled from our general budget. This year we are trying to live within our means so to speak and if the funding is not there, then we cannot offer the free service until it is. We offered individual and group sessions last year on an open door basis and we got into financial trouble,” said Kathleen Pegues, president of the organization. “This is so hard for the staff because we want to help!”

The costs associated with running an equine-assisted therapy program are large and varied. The program must pay $20 to $27 per hour for each Path-certified instructor involved in the sessions, which can run up to two hours.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International offers various levels of certification to people that go through their courses in subjects like teaching methodologies and disabilities, equine management and horsemanship.

Costs of running the program also include everything from boarding at Pompano Beach’s Sand and Spurs Equestrian Park, which according to Pegues runs the organization about $320 per barn stall per month, to daily feeding and regular vet and farrier visits for the horses.

“Horses for Heroes Day spotlights our veterans,” said Mayor Lamar Fisher, who declared April 30 “Horses for Heroes” Day and said he is proud to house the organization at the city-owned Sand and Spurs equestrian park. “We’re invested.”

The spotlight, however, doesn’t appear to help fundraise.

“It was a symbolic gesture by the city [but] has not promoted much funding that we were able to track,” said Pegues. “Hopefully the city will do more in the future. That being said the city employees have been extremely supportive of the program financially and with in-kind donations.”

The VA, also seems to have its hands tied as far as funding.

“Recreation therapy is not billable to any insurance,” said Aragon. “When we use outside services we don’t have a budget. We look for services that are free of charge and [for tax purposes] offer a letter saying the charge was donated.”

Despite difficulties with funding and the type of riding session that would be most beneficial, everyone seems to agree that equestrian therapy is extremely beneficial and should be supported.

“Our service is no doubt highly effective, medically and cost-wise, but we are a small corner of the medical industry and a smaller corner of the entire veteran industry,” said Pegues. “We are steadily becoming recognized but we have a long road ahead of us.”

Aragon, frustrated with the fact that the program started with such a bang a couple years ago but has been off and on since, agrees.

Boise connects with a horse at Bit by Bit.

Boise connects with a horse at Bit by Bit.

“Bit by Bit needs help. It’s an important program and they need money … it definitely needs to be grown,” said Aragon. “We’re showing veterans that there are things you can do in life that are enjoyable.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of marines and soldiers coming back from overseas with traumatic brain injuries like I have, and there’s nothing better,” said Boise. “Horses are great. I love them.”

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