Horses for Heroes helping Utah veterans recover

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SOUTH JORDAN -- Each Friday, a handful of military veterans from along the Wasatch Front saddle up horses and ride. They say the hour-long sessions help them heal old wounds and gain new confidence.

Equine-assisted activities and therapy are not new, but the list of people who can benefit physically, mentally and emotionally from bonding with a horse continues to grow.

"When I come up here, it makes it so I forget about the pain for a little while." Kevin Beus, veteran

The Horses for Heroes program at Camp Kostopulos in Emigration Canyon helps vets from the Salt Lake VA shrug off their worries for awhile.

Navy veteran Kevin Beus says he sank into a shell of isolation several years ago after a hereditary disease and a subsequent stroke sapped him of strength, balance and confidence, and left him with painful arthritis.

"You bond with the horse so much that you both take care of each other," he says.

Beus credits the Horses for Heroes program, and his bond with the horse Jubilee, for helping him stretch his legs again and reach out physically and socially. He looks at ease as he gallops through the Camp Kostopulos, riding arena bareback.

"The first time I came up," he says, "it brought back memories I had lost from the stroke."

Horses just have this magical power where people don't worry what the horse is thinking about them. They just get to be friends.

–Vanessa Russell, program coordinator

Beus is visually impaired, but he focuses on the fun task at hand and leaves his disability behind when he rides. He says it reminds him of positive experiences he had with horses when he was younger.

"When I come up here, it makes it so I forget about the pain for a little while," Beus says.

Before the veterans ever mounted the horses, they learned to groom the animals. That helps start the bonding process and creates mutual trust that the horse and rider need to develop.

Max Martinez, a Korean and Vietnam War vet, feels temporarily freed from his Parkinson's disease when he's up on a horse. The 80-year-old gets emotional when he talks about the fond memories riding stirs for him.

Vanessa Russell, the Camp Kostopulos horse program coordinator, says horseback riding helps the vets build muscle and develop better balance. For amputees, it can help the rider better adjust to life without the limb.

Psychologically, equine-assisted therapy helps the rider regain confidence and simply focus on fun.

"Horses just have this magical power where people don't worry what the horse is thinking about them," says Russell. "They just get to be friends. They have a buddy they can work with and bond with."

Contact Horses for Heroes ...
For more information on Horses for Heroes call voluntary services at the Salt Lake VA: 801-582-1565 ext. 1559

The vets say they notice a real benefit. They realize that if they can do this, they can do plenty of other things.

Jim Huber has been riding a horse called Chaos this summer. He also lost his eyesight, and finds that riding his pal Chaos gives him renewed stability.

"There's an inherent hazard with riding," he says, "and you feel more comfortable as time progresses, and you bond with the animal."

Huber rode horses in the Unita Mountains when he was younger, and some of that experience is coming back to him.

As those skills return this summer, Huber regains his sense of teamwork with the horse.

"It gives me a better sense of where I'm at," he says. "It focuses my listening to what's going on around me since my vision has diminished."

The vets say as soon as they leave they can't wait to go back to the arena and ride again.



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Jed Boal


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