Wounded warriors benefit from ‘Operation Saddle Up’
By Karen Brainard
Four years ago this month a pilot program began for wounded warriors that became “Operation Saddle Up,” an uplifting, healing process for veterans at Cornerstone Therapeutic Riding Center in Ramona.
Judy Beckett is founder and executive director of Cornerstone, which was one of three places invited to participate in the pilot program. She launched Operation Saddle Up when she moved her Cornerstone center to Creek Hollow Ranch in September 2008.
Beckett has seen firsthand how equine therapy has benefited the servicemen and women.
Operation Saddle Up offers active duty wounded warriors at the San Diego Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park the opportunity to bond with horses in three-hour sessions, meeting once a week for five or eight week periods. Participants learn how to ride a horse and are taught all aspects of caring for a horse.
“It’s the environment itself that’s therapeutic,” said Beckett. “Any war-related injury or illness we’re dealing with.”
Those injuries can include lost limbs or spinal damage. They can also include traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which are less physically visible. Volunteers working with the program are trained not to ask what is wrong or what happened.
The program strives to have participants work with the same horse each week so they can bond with them. Operation Saddle Up also helps veterans with socialization skills by diminishing fear, the director said.
It’s about their healing, noted Beckett. By bonding with the horses, the veterans become stronger every week.
“They walk out of here with a tremendous breadth of experience. The horses are the cornerstone of the program,” said Beckett.
“We let it be their process,” she said, adding that if she has a game plan in mind and they want to do something else, that’s okay.
“This is a place they can just be,” she said. “It’s freedom. Animal/human bond—there’s nothing that transcends that.”
Gary Montoya, a volunteer with the San Diego Armed Services YMCA, occasionally drives wounded warriors to the riding center.
“The guys just love it,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic program for them. Lifts their morale.”
Montoya added that the program brings the veterans out of their shell. In just two weeks, Montoya said he had seen a change in his passengers and their excitement.
Beckett said progressing quickly from leading to cantering gives veterans a sense of accomplishment.
The horses also provide a sense of normalcy, helpful for the healing process, said Beckett. For some reason, when the veterans are with a horse they are incapable of thinking of anything else, she said.
The program was created by working extensively with doctors, physical and occupational therapists, mental health experts and master certified therapeutic riding instructors to meet the unique needs of the wounded returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The success of Operation Saddle Up can be seen by the appreciative hugs and thank-you’s wounded warriors give Beckett and the volunteers.
After they finish the program, participants are welcome to come back. Some have returned to volunteer while others have gone back to active duty.
After one participant asked if he could bring his wife, Beckett said she realized the ripple effect the injuries have on the veterans’ families. When the wife came, she told Beckett the program saved their marriage because her husband was at peace when he came home. Beckett said she is now looking into involving spouses.
Not only are the military personnel grateful for the program, but so are the volunteers.
Brenda Nickerson, a volunteer from the Carmel Valley area, said: “I’m so blessed to be able to come here. It’s such a magical place. Everyone’s treated with respect.”
Longtime volunteer Gary Sharp said he enjoys seeing the positive changes in the clients from the beginning to the end of the program.
For more information on Operation Saddle Up or to donate, see www.cornerstonetrc.org, or call Beckett at 760-788-2872.
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