About eight out of every 100 military veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. David Hammer, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, was diagnosed with PTSD and Moral Injury. David explains how Coyote Hill’s Equine Therapy Program is allowing veterans like himself to find purpose and healing.
I joined the naval academy in 1964. Graduated and entered the Marine Corps because I wanted to fly. Went into Vietnam in 1972 and flew 100 combat missions there. I knew there was something different when I came back home, but wasn’t sure what it was. Veterans usually take three different methods to deal with those internal wounds when they return. They become a workaholic, like I did. Some look to self-medication as their way out. Others just drop out and cease to function. But you can not outrun it or ignore it.
The veterans’ program at Coyote Hill started when Larry reached out to the recreational therapy group at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. He wanted to offer Coyote Hill’s Equine Program, free of charge, to help veterans like myself who were struggling.
This program has been great. Larry’s so experienced with the benefits of equine therapy that he knew just how to set this up for us. Veterans like the freedom they are given here. They can establish a relationship with a specific horse and do all the work of grooming, saddling, and riding by themselves, with direction if they need it. Larry’s theme – which I think is perfect for the horses and the veterans – is trust. Most of the veterans who struggle with readjustment issues deal primarily with a lack of trust. They feel betrayed – no one fully explained to them what they were going to experience in combat. Then they come back home after those years of service and no one seems to know how to interact with them. Larry is all about building trust. We’re not only establishing a trusting relationship with our horse, Larry and the staff demonstrate their trust in us as we’re allowed to work with and ride the horses. Larry started talking trust the moment he introduced himself, and the veterans GET that.
One aspect of our equine program is letting the participant choose the horse they are going to work with. Whether it’s one of our children or a veteran, they choose their own horse. We don’t pick one for them. That horse will then be their horse each time they come. The expectation is that the participant will stick with their chosen horse. We don’t let them ask for a different one just because something goes wrong once. They have to learn to build and work on that relationship and make it a success. They get to know each other well. A horse is highly sensitive to a person’s emotions and feelings, so that’s a huge benefit of building a relationship with one particular horse.~~Larry McDaniel
I had chosen Cinnamon during my first session out here, and worked with her on my second session. On the day that I was supposed to come for a third session, I was having a really rough day. I woke up terribly depressed and didn’t want to go anywhere, but I went out to Coyote Hill anyway. I got Cinnamon from the pasture and brought her into a stall to curry her. I had only been with her those few moments, but when I bent over to get the brush from the bucket and stood back up, she put her head on my shoulder and nickered a bit. She had already sensed in that short amount of time that I was down in the dumps. She did that two or three more times while I was grooming her. It was her way of giving me a hug. She also went over the bridge that day. A lot of the horses refuse to walk over the simulated bridge that we try to lead them over in the pasture because they just don’t like it, but the minute I reached the bridge and dismounted, she let me lead her right over it. She knew I was having a rough day and she didn’t want to give me any trouble.
Speaking of the bridge. Gary* came for a 9 week session, but was extremely withdrawn and silent the first few times he came. Many of the veterans are. Yet by the third or fourth session, Gary randomly showed up early on his own and started chatting with me. He began sharing about the trauma that veterans experience, and explained that he still wakes up in the middle of the night with bad dreams from the war. However, since he’s been coming to Coyote Hill, instead of bad dreams he’s been waking up in the middle of the night trying to figure out how he’s going to get his horse across that bridge.~~Larry
*we honor and respect the privacy of a veteran’s story
Another benefit for veterans is a return of their confidence. They see that they can do this; they can make choices. There’s a profound change by the time they finish the nine week program. They’re engaged again and looking for things to do.
Not everyone understands the complexity of the internal issues that veterans have, but Larry gets it. Larry treats us all as adults – he probably even treats the kids this way. Things such as, ‘You’re responsible for your actions. You make your choices and you live with them. If you make a mistake that’s okay but try not to do it again.’ By treating us this way, he’s reestablishing in these veterans who have internal wounds that it’s okay to live life again. Try something. Do something. He’s providing us with the context and the location where we can do that; where we can learn how to function and be ourselves again.
Joe is one of our veterans who completed the nine week program and then asked if he could keep coming once a week. He’s very trust-worthy and grew up around horses, so I have no problem letting him come out on Fridays to go riding on his own. We leave Friday mornings open at the arena for veterans like him and David who continue to benefit from our horses.
Joe adds, “I look forward to this all week long. It takes me back to those younger, carefree teenage summers spent on grandma’s farm, long before the harsh realities of Vietnam.”
I went on an honor flight, thanks to the encouragement of Cindy Mutrux, and it reminded me of what an incredible community we live in. There are so many things offered for veterans in mid-Missouri (the Honor Flight, Welcome Home, Coyote Hill’s Equine Therapy, The Food Bank, etc.) It’s been such a giving and supporting community. If you can’t find healing in this community, I’m not sure where you can.
PTSD can take many forms. All of us who participate in Coyote Hill’s program have some type of invisible wound. This is the opportunity for us, on our own, to build a relationship and function and be encouraged to do it. Larry and the staff have been incredible. When we arrive at Coyote Hill – it’s an entirely new game, where we can simply relax and reconnect with ourselves.