The J.F. Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding seeks to offer veterans an opportunity to learn horsemanship skills while working on their mental health through its Equine Assisted Military Program.
Through a partnership with a local veterans center the therapeutic riding center offers a 12-week program for veterans. The program uses equine activities to help participants grow in “emotional awareness, self-regulation, confidence, trust, communication, and finding purpose and identity,” Equine Assisted Learning Program Administrator Kelli Navarro said.
“Orange County is one of the biggest veteran population counties in California … so the need is really there and we’ve been able to grow quite a bit with that partnership,” Navarro said.
The Shea Center has a 10-year partnership with the veterans center “that has grown especially over the last couple of years,” Navarro said.
The veterans center “has their own therapists who work with these individuals and then they bring them together as a group,” Navarro continued. “A lot of the time, they don’t know each other and that creates a lot of really cool moments when they start to learn to communicate and be a team through this program.”
The 12-week program varies to meet the group’s needs, Navarro explained.
“The first couple of weeks are all ground activities, so they’re not actually riding,” Navarro said. “They’re learning about behavior, body language. They’re learning self-regulation and breathing and the importance of checking in with themselves before checking in with the horse and then they learn horsemanship skills as well.”
As participants learn horsemanship skills, they learn how to lead a horse out of a stall, safety, tacking and grooming.
“Week four, they actually get on (a horse), so they learn all of these things to lead up to mounting and riding,” Navarro said.
As the participants gain more horseback experience, Navarro explained that the program adds in obstacle courses, drill teams, and more opportunities for teamwork. The Shea Center also offers a bareback night where veterans are able to ride their horse without a saddle.
“A lot of them have given feedback that they’d like to do that more than once because they felt more connected to their horse that way,” Navarro said. “So we’ve also adjusted certain activities and which order we do them based on feedback.”
Navarro added that she hopes veterans that participate in the program leave with enhanced self-regulation and more awareness.
“The team camaraderie and communication that happens over the 12-weeks is huge,” Navarro said. “Sometimes our 12-week program will just be readjustment skills.”
Navarro explained that the therapeutic riding center works with the veterans center therapists to “develop equine activities that align with current goals and needs of the participants.”
“We’ll also offer, based on what the (veteran center) therapists suggest, we do couples,” Navarro said. “So we’ll have the vet and their significant other participate, which really showcases the importance of communication and learning each other and working together.”
“It’s been really cool to see the couples come away after 12 weeks,” Navarro continued. “All of the skills, the communication, team building and it’s nice to see them gain some horsemanship skills.”
Former Marine Corps Officer Sean Forester, who served in the military for 20 years including a combat tour in Afghanistan, came away from the Shea Center’s 12-week equine therapy program for veterans with newfound strength and resilience, he said in an email.
“I am no longer afraid to face my emotions, and I am grateful for the opportunity to heal,” Forester said.
Through the program, Forester explained that he was able to process “the trauma of combat and learned to cope with difficult emotions through the equine therapy program at the Shea Center.”
“I am grateful for the support and guidance of the staff, and I would recommend this program to any veteran who is struggling,” Forester said.
“As we grow and develop more things, I’m hoping that we can have programs like we’re already doing but reach more veterans so that they don’t have to go through a funnel,” Navarro said.
Navarro added that the Shea Center is looking to continue to “grow these programs and meet the growing needs of our veteran communities, but in order to do so, we need the time, talent, and treasure of others.”