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Not horsing around: Equine therapy aims to help Soldiers, families

Chaplain (Capt.) Juan Castro, U.S. Army chaplain, works with Jackie Paul-Stevens, licensed professional counselor, in the round pen at the Fort Rucker Riding Stables as he commands Old Mist to run throughout the pen using his body language during an equine-assisted therapy training session April 28. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Chaplain (Capt.) Juan Castro, U.S. Army  chaplain, works with Jackie Paul-Stevens, licensed professional counselor, in the round pen at the Fort Rucker Riding Stables as he commands Old Mist to run throughout the pen using his body language during an equine-assisted therapy training session April 28. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Published: May 5, 2016

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (May 5, 2016) -- There are countless methods of therapy used to help Soldiers and family members through difficult times, but helping agency personnel on Fort Rucker aren’t horsing around when it comes to providing the best treatment for those under their care.

Fort Rucker unit ministry teams and Lyster Army Health Clinic behavioral health personnel were provided hands-on training in equine-assisted therapy at the Fort Rucker Riding Stables April 28 where they worked with horses to learn various therapeutic benefits of caring for horses, herd psychology and exercises in horsemanship, according to Chaplain (Capt.) Joe Sherwin, 1st Battalion, 14th Aviation Regiment battalion chaplain.

“(This therapy) exposes Soldiers and spouses to an alternative treatment method that uses natural horsemanship and herd psychology exercises in the development of skills and strategies for dealing with problems, such as relationship issues, stress management, (post traumatic stress disorder), dependency issues, autism, overcoming fears, and other behavioral and developmental issues,” said Sherwin.

Throughout the training, the ministry teams and caregivers learned about the fundamentals of taking care of a horse and how they can find the process to be therapeutic. Throughout the day, they worked with a horse doing ground exercises in the round pin to build trust and communicate with the horse through body language.

Jackie Paul-Stevens, licensed professional counselor and avid horse rider, was on hand to provide the training and show the caregivers how the equine therapy can help in the healing process for patients, especially those who are returning from deployments and trying to readjust to life stateside.

“This is a place where you can feel like you’ve got some power,” she said. “For a one-year deployment, it takes approximately three years to recover from a stimulus, such as those fight or flight situations that they often encounter during a deployment.

“When Soldiers do back-to-back deployments, they don’t get that decompression,” said Paul-Stevens. “(Equine therapy) can provide a positive stimulus because the (Soldier’s) physiological needs aren’t being met with they come home, and this is a fabulous outlet for them.”

Although the training is meant to benefit caregivers, such as medical professionals and chaplains who work directly with Soldiers and families, it’s ultimately focused on patient care by demonstrating that there are multiple approaches to assisting Soldiers and families in a therapeutic environment, said Sherwin.

“This training highlights the interdisciplinary approach to caring for the Soldier and family,” said the chaplain. “It demonstrates the connection between the physical and the spiritual in providing a holistic approach to therapy and counseling,” adding that highlighting these new types of therapy can prove to be an invaluable resource for Soldiers and family members who might not respond to other traditionally therapy methods.

Sherwin said he was first exposed to this type of therapy during his time training at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, where caregivers were using horses to work with wounded warriors. It was there he met with Paul-Stevens and her husband, CW5 Vance Paul.

“Over dinner, she shared her heart for this alternative therapy method and how they were able to successfully implement it in the local area,” said the battalion chaplain. “I toured their equine farm and stables later and proposed creating this training as a means of exposing Soldiers, family members and caregivers to this alternative therapy.”

For more information on equine-assisted therapy on Fort Rucker, call 255-5048.

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