11 January 2010

Riding toward recovery

Army Staff Sgt. Mike Cain, 29, who has a prosthetic leg, was wounded in Iraq when a land mine detonated under his vehicle. He plans to adopt Bud when the horse is retired from the caisson unit at Arlington National Cemetery and take him to his parents' farm in Wisconsin. Photo: Carol Guzy / Washington Post.

Riding toward recovery: Caisson horses help injured vets get on with life
By T. Rees Shapiro, The Washington Post
Stars & Stripes Mideast edition, Monday, January 11, 2010

WASHINGTON — A stronger blast, a little less luck, and the horse that Marine Sgt. Michael Blair is riding down an Arlington, Va., trail could easily be pulling his coffin.

“It’s an honor riding these horses, knowing what they do,” he said.

The horses that Blair rides in a rehabilitation program for wounded servicemembers also pull the caissons that carry fallen troops for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. At times, Blair rides them along the same road, turning and heading back to the barn before reaching the cemetery.

Blair, 34, was on a security mission in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving rolled over a pressure-plate mine. When he regained consciousness, he saw two singed holes in his camouflage pants where his knees should have been.

After 60 surgeries, Blair still walks on his own two legs, his recovery aided in large part by the civilian therapeutic riding program he entered in 2006.

Today, the Caisson Platoon Equine-Assisted Riding Program, headed by military veterans Mary Jo Beckman and Larry Pence and supported by the Veterans Administration, counts hundreds of servicemembers as testament to the success of matching wounded warriors with horses. The program, based at Fort Myer in Virginia, accepts any servicemember, wounded physically or psychologically, certain that it has benefits for all participants.

The connection that the caisson horses have with the military community helps the wounded troops in ways other forms of traditional rehabilitation can’t, Beckman and Pence said. It allows troops to bond with the horses they ride, which, Pence said, has been shown to help improve the riders’ moods.

Unlike in some other rehabilitation programs, riders work their muscles naturally, said Pence, 63, a retired Army command sergeant major from Fredericksburg, Va. As the servicemembers ride, they exercise the same muscle groups they would if they were walking and simultaneously train core muscles to help improve balance and stability.

The riding program is the only therapeutic riding program at a military base on the East Coast. Instead of nurses, it uses combat soldiers assigned to the Old Guard, the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.

More at the link. For a list of locations across the country offering therapeutic riding programs for veterans, see the NAHRA Horses for Heroes web site.

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