Frank J. Buchman

Cowboy • Horseman • Writer

Equine Assisted Programs For Veterans Mental Health

Dealing with post-traumatic stress and depression can be hard to combat, especially for those who have served our country.

A partnership with organizations aims to provide healing.

A 2022 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that an average of 16.8 veterans died by suicide each day in 2020.

Healing Strides is one of 12 programs nationwide partnering with Horses for Mental Health to provide well-being services for veterans and members of the Armed Forces, with funding from the VA Adaptive Sports Grant. The grant consists of mental health assistance through an equine-assisted learning curriculum.

“We’re going to be working on things like building resiliency, building trust back with self, which then allows us to build trust back with others, and the horses are wonderful for that because they really allow us to check in with ourselves and what we’re truly feeling inside that we try to hide sometimes, or we might not even understand what that is,” said Kassidy Earhart, equine specialist in mental health Learning.

Navy veteran John Igoe is looking to join the program. He said four years in the military came with challenges and stories that are hard to forget.

“I was on the honor guard and funeral detail, which was the highlight of my career, to be honest with you. When you’re burying people your age who have just come back from Vietnam, it gives you pause. And you see little children sitting in the front row; their dads are in that casket. That was very hard to do at times,” said Igoe.

Community Outreach Coordinator Deck Hardee said engaging with horses can create emotional safe spaces for veterans to work through those difficult life experiences.

“It breaks down those barriers and it is such a great non-traditional way of getting in. You start brushing the horse; the next thing know you start talking and it’s like, oh, I haven’t told that story in like 15 years, Oops. But then you feel better because you’ve told it and that’s the beauty of what we do,” said Hardee.

Stephen and Kasey Kelly are a military family who know first-hand what it’s like to struggle adjusting back to civilian life. Stephen was medically retired after 11 years in the Army but is finding healing through Healing Strides.

“I was very worried about losing the family and the brother and sister aspect of having someone always there, but we got here. It was nice because that’s when we kind of started building our community and understand this is where we can actually put down roots,” said Stephen Kelly.

“Having this opportunity and having a place where veterans can come and feel safe is super important to us as a family, it’s super important for our advocacy for veterans,” said Kasey Kelly.

The grant allows 18 veterans to be a part of this tw-hour-a-week, eight-week course. But Healing Strides said the goal is to expand the program.

Additional information can be found at healingstrideofva.org.

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