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Vets find healing with horse therapy

FOLSOM, LA (WVUE) -

Veterans of some of the most horrific wars of the past 50 years are having a tough time coping, and suicides are happening at an alarming rate.

But there's a new program on the north shore that shows promise using a unique type of therapy. Organizers hope that it will expand quickly to help save lives.

It's a long way from Fallujah to Folsom.

"It's hard coming out because I don't like to come out very much," said veteran Rob Rogers. "This time of year is difficult. My unit got in some tough fighting in Fallujah in 05. I'm just glad I came out."

Rogers isn't alone. Veterans who have been through the ordeals of war often have a tough time adjusting.

"What is it - 23, 24 suicides a day or something like that? I don't know how big the need is, but it's big," said counselor Paula Leffman.

The need is getting a big assist at the New Heights Therapy Center, where veterans use horses to rediscover themselves. Everything from saddling up to running the horse through its paces are confidence builders for the men who served and sacrificed on the battlefield.

"I hope that it gives them a sense of accomplishment and confidence - like they have something that they did all on their own," said counselor Meredith Buswell.

It's all part of a horse therapy healing process that Vietnam vet Eddie Oltmann said has made a big difference in his life.

"I was in the Army working with the Marines when I took shrapnel, so I blame the Marines," Oltmann said, tongue in cheek.

It's been a long time since the Purple Heart recipient got on a horse.

"Over 50 years ago, one ride, the horse stopped short and I fell off, he said. “I was a little apprehensive."

But with the help of a dedicated group of counselors and horses specially selected for the task, the veterans pick up coping skills and confidence.

"If you have someone who's high-stressed, is having trouble relating to the world, through the horse that will break down," said New Heights Director Stephen Engro.

Veterans have been working with these horses for about eight weeks and have earned a measure of trust they never expected.

"We're taking primal animal nature, and we're creating a connection with a human being to share that behavior and be part of that world," said counselor Cindy Sibley.

The ultimate moment comes in the round pen. The horses, initially, want nothing to do with the veterans. But with patience and a calm voice, they come closer and obey the commands - until they rest their heads on the veterans' shoulder. It's the ultimate sign of trust between horse and trainer.

"When I do round pen work, the first thing is that relationship with the horse, and the horse coming to me is just magical, special," said Leffmann.

"When you think about the animal, you don't think about yourself or your problems,” said Rogers. “It's great."

Last week, there were over a half-million veterans with pending disability claims, many for post-traumatic stress.

"Are you teaching Bucky, or is he teaching you?" we asked Rogers.

"He's teaching me a lot about patience, and trying to make myself relaxed if the horse feels relaxed," Rogers said.

The hope now is to take this pilot program to hundreds of other local veterans.

Though they've survived the battlefield, the struggle isn't over.

"When I'm on the horse, I don't feel the pain I normally feel because I'm too busy doing something," said Rogers.

And the goal is to do a lot more in a society that has reaped the benefits of their service.

The New Heights Therapy Program will do another session this spring with the goal of launching a second program on the south shore. Similar programs are already helping scores of veterans in other parts of the country.

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