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Equine-Assisted Therapy Brings Peace and Hope to Centre County Veterans

by on November 11, 2019 6:00 AM

Jennifer Allgeier is tired of talking. The former Army specialist has been struggling with PTSD for years, and she’s frustrated by traditional counseling methods.

“They make you tell your whole life story in one hour, and then it’s just like, ‘OK, you’re free to go.’ How am I supposed to deal afterwards? The worst stuff of your life, you’re supposed to talk about and fit into one hour? I just kind of have gotten to the point where I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she says.

As Allgeier began seeking other avenues of support, a representative from Centre County Veterans Affairs told her about Rising Hope Therapeutic Riding Center in Bellefonte. Now, she spends two hours each week working with Dakota, a Gypsy Vanner horse that doesn’t ask her to talk, but does require other means of communication that Allgeier finds healing.

“Being with Dakota helps me feel that how I am is OK, and that I don’t need to be what everybody needs me to be all the time. He builds my confidence and makes me feel understood,” she says. “I don’t like to cry, but sometimes I will need it, and he’ll be right here; he’ll put his head on my shoulder, and that makes me cry. … I just love him. He’s the only thing that makes me happy lately. He makes me really calm, too.”

Ashley Confer’s experience has been similar. After being medically discharged from the Army, Confer struggles with anxiety, among other symptoms. Confer has been working with Remmy, another Gypsy Vanner, for about four weeks.

“My brain just never stops. I can’t focus on just one thing. But when I’m here, I’m forced to focus just on that horse. It just quiets my mind; it’s so peaceful. It’s something I don’t get to experience too often,” she says. “I wasn’t really getting anything out of just sitting down and talking to someone. It’s just a completely different experience here. You’re not forced to talk, but at the same time, you’re getting more out of it because you’re actually working on yourself.”

Calming connections

Confer and Allgeier are two of 12 veterans or veteran family members who currently participate in the program at Rising Hope. The riding center also provides therapeutic riding opportunities to individuals with special needs, such as spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome, making it the only multi-faceted therapeutic riding facility in Centre County.  

According to program director and lead instructor Yvonne McCaslin, the approach she takes with the two groups differs. Special-needs participants often focus on the physical benefits of riding horses, including working on gross and fine motor skills, core strength, flexibility, balance, and posture, whereas the veterans program focuses on developing meaningful relationships between veterans and horses. According to McCaslin, these relationships bring immeasurable benefits to veterans who may be suffering with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or any number of physical and psychological issues related to trauma they may have encountered during their time in the service.

“The veteran is trying to get back to how they need to live in civilian life today. They’ve survived their duties as a soldier, and now they have to survive again during their transition. And that is so difficult in so many ways. So, the first step is, I have to get them here,” McCaslin says. “The horse is a strong motivator. They get that person here.

“Once they’re here, their attention, their focus, is centered. You can’t be in this environment and have a bunch of other things going on. You have to focus. That horse demands it from you. The horse is very sensitive. They read body communications very well; they can sense when people are stressed or nervous or even tight and angry. So if you want to communicate something, you’ve got to say that with your body language. You have to be able to relax and then execute what you need. So that’s where there are things they can learn here and start to take away and use in other areas of their lives.

Also, just being in the presence of a horse is calming; there’s a connection that comes with touching it, rubbing it, going through the grooming process. … Then, with the riding of the horse, you have that rhythmic movement, you have that connection, now you and the horse are working together as partners. It’s really tremendous.”

In her relatively short time with the program, Confer has already experienced some of these benefits, she says.

“Part of anxiety is irrational fear. It prevents you from doing so-called normal daily things,” she says. “I’m so closed off and I don’t go out and do much. This actually forces me to come out. There are days when I don’t feel like coming, but I push myself to do it. If I can get through the first 20 minutes, before I know it, it’s been two hours and I forget how long I’ve been here.”

In addition, Confer says working with Remmy has helped her find joy and confidence.

“Remmy is a troublemaker. He’s comical. There hasn’t been one time here that I haven’t cracked up because of him. That’s been a great experience because I find I don’t laugh or have a genuine smile most of the time,” she says. “I still have a long ways to go, but I’ve had to learn to be confident for that horse. If I’m not, he’s going to be the one that wants to be in charge, and everything is just going to go downhill.”

‘If we can just help one…’

Rising Hope was born when McCaslin was introduced to Cindy Lamey-Kocher, the owner of the property on Reese Road that currently houses the Rising Hope facility. Lamey-Kocher had experienced the healing benefit of horses upon the tragic death of her husband, and wanted to share the experience with others who needed it. McCaslin had worked at a Clinton County therapeutic riding center for seven years and had been dreaming of opening one in Centre County.

The two teamed up and brought together a board of directors, creating a 501-c3 nonprofit in 2015. The resulting facility boasts a beautiful mountaintop vista, an immaculate barn with an indoor riding arena, and nine horses. Some are owned by Lamey-Kocher, some are from Last Chance Ranch, a rescue organization in Quakertown, and at least one was donated by a breeding program that gives Gypsy Vanner horses to therapeutic riding programs. A pony and two miniature horses are used for community outreach or for work with younger children.

Although most of the organization’s manpower is provided by volunteers, McCaslin says, keeping horses healthy and happy is expensive. The nonprofit relies on grants and private donations. Special-needs therapy participants pay a $30 fee for each 45-minute lesson, but McCaslin donates her time to the veterans, who participate for free and whose sessions can last up to two hours. In McCaslin’s view, this is just one small way to begin to repay veterans for their service, which is a cause about which she is deeply passionate.

“The VA has cited statistics that in 2018, there were 20 veterans committing suicide every day. It’s staggering, and that is just not right,” she says. “We need to support our veterans. They have done so much for us. What are we doing for the people who are willing to put their lives on the line for us? You can either give your money or your time. These people are living right here around us in our community, and they need help. They are struggling in so many ways. They all have multiple friends, fellow soldiers, that have killed themselves. That becomes another struggle. It’s a serious epidemic.”

This struggle is familiar to both Allgeier and Confer.

“PTSD and trauma change your brain, and it’s not necessarily going to go away, so you need to learn to adapt. You’ve been through the depths of human experience. You have to just kind of accept that and kind of mourn it. But you have to find something that will let you fit into society in some way. Because if you don’t…,” Allgeier pauses and looks away. “I’ve lost a lot of friends.”

“Part of it is working through the pain, the hurt, and the fear, and you just want it to stop. That’s the problem, that’s why suicide rates are going up – people don’t know how to work through it,” Confer agrees. “So, I think coming here is a good path to try to work through those problems because they’re never going to go away. They’re always going to be there; it’s just a matter of knowing how to deal with them, learning good coping skills.”

Helping veterans learn those coping skills has been McCaslin’s goal from the beginning.

“When we started this program, I said if we can just help one veteran, it will be worth our efforts. That has been fulfilled, and more. The Lord has really blessed it. And we’re still growing,” she says.

In its first four years, Rising Hope has grown to accommodate 35 participants and 30 lessons each week. McCaslin hopes to expand that to 100-150 participants in the not-too-distant future, and she and the board of directors are currently making deliberate plans for growth, which may include moving to a new location.

Meanwhile, McCaslin’s passion for helping veterans has led her to take the reins in organizing the first Centre County Veterans Expo, scheduled to be held on May 2, 2020, at the Centre County Grange Fairgrounds. The expo, planned as an annual event, will showcase local resources and services for active military members, veterans, and their families.

McCaslin’s commitment to veterans ensures that the therapy received at Rising Hope goes well beyond the equine experience.

“There’s not many people that I want to talk to,” Allgeier says. “A lot of people don’t feel safe anymore; they don’t know how to handle me, they’re afraid to ask questions because I might tell them too much. Yvonne says, ‘If you want to talk, you can talk, but you don’t have to.’ And nothing feels like too much with her. She asks me questions that make me think, ‘Wow, I am valuable,’ I get more therapy from her and from the horse than I’ve had in years.”

To learn more about Rising Hope Therapeutic Riding Center, visit www.risinghopetrc.com or call (814) 933-8414.

Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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