Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Horses help heroes overcome life's challenges
When Veteran Charlie Copson had to put Bailey, his Golden Retriever and best friend, to sleep, he swore he’d never get emotionally involved with anyone or anything again. Copson, who is diagnosed with PTSD and walks with a prosthetic leg above the knee, wasn’t coping well with his loss.
“I was alone and it hurt,” Copson recalled. “I have a hard time developing relationships but Ty helped me overcome that.”
Ty, a chestnut gelding with Rein & Shine’s “Horses for Heroes” program, partnered with Copson and the two started developing an instant relationship.
Veterans Enrichment Center (VEC) Program Manager Joyce Bell and her team at Charleston VAMC helped enroll disabled Veterans in Horses for Heroes’ first class.
“It is awesome! Veterans light up when they mention Horses for Heroes,” Bell emotionally said. “The program is truly life changing – it provides hope, joy, and healing through a therapeutic connection to living.”
Horses for Heroes is an eight week program that provides a therapeutic environment for Veterans through taking care of, and bonding with, a horse. Veterans learn to bond with a horse and get over the intimidation of working with an animal approximately a half-ton. Then they learn to groom—brush, clean hooves, and care for—the horse, building a bond of trust with their equine partner.
Equine therapy helps Veterans not only learn about a horse, but to achieve goals that improve social, communication, and behavioral skills. Most important of all, equine therapy instills a sense of accomplishment once Veterans are able to mount horses for the first time and become a single entity with their equine partner.
Charleston VAMC Volunteer Emerson Beach also participated in the program. Beach, a navy Veteran who suffers from brain damage found comfort by isolating himself at home.
“The thought of going out scared me,” Beach said. “I was afraid to try Rein & Shine, but Hagen is helping to make the scariness go away.”
Hagen, a brown German Warmblood, bonded with Beach shortly after they met.
“Hagen helped me mellow out,” Beach mentioned. “He helped me realize that the world isn’t as scary as I once thought.”
The Veterans who participated in the original program are now enrolled in a more advanced Horses for Heroes class. It’s rewarding for the graduates to “saddle up” and help hurdle life’s obstacles through equine therapy.
“It doesn’t matter what disabilities you might have—give it a shot. There’s nothing to lose,” Copson said. “VEC and Rein & Shine will find a way to make it work.”