A group of active duty and retired military members recently converged on a local farm to learn more about equine therapy.

The Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy held its equine experience event July 26 in the HETRA barn.

The event is open to prior service, active military (including reserves) and veterans of all age and type. The one-day event is offered on a monthly basis and exposes participants to a number of exercises offered through HETRA’s veterans program.

July’s event attendees began their afternoon with herd dynamics. During this exercise, participants observed a group of horses, watching their behavior as they interacted with each other.

“We do herd dynamics as an exercise to show how equine behavior is very similar to human behavior,” said Angie Drew, communications and administrative specialist. “There’s always a leader in a herd and people have natural instincts, just like equine.”

After spending about 10 minutes watching the horses, participants chatted about what they observed.

“It promotes dialogue within the veterans group,” Drew said. “This takes them away from themselves and allows them to focus on something else. It frees thoughts and opens them up to more personal introspection, which we find out is a need.”

After herd dynamics, participants split into a number of other exercises including grooming, carriage driving and round penning.

These exercises can vary each month, but each serves a therapeutic purpose.

Many provide bonding experiences between the participant and the horse, often requiring the participant to calm their emotions in order to gain the trust of the animal.

HETRA first saw a need for veterans services in 2010. The organization was able to obtain grants to help cover the cost, finding ways to offer free services so as not to create an additional cost to participants.

Family members are invited to attend the event along with their veterans, as they serve as that individual’s support system.

“This program allows veterans to work outside themselves,” said Chris O’Callaghan, specialty program coordinator. “Horses are incredibly sensitive to our energy. They provide instant feedback, but they are incredibly forgiving. If you are able to calm yourself, they’ll still come work with you.”

The program allows participants to work through a number of emotions, working on self control, building confidence and working on how to present oneself.

Upon attending an equine experience event, participants are invited to attend the veterans program, which offers future sessions to veterans.

“A lot of veterans deal with depression, so to get them out here consistently is the goal,” O’Callaghan said. “The more we get them into our community, the more chance they have at being successful.”

HETRA consistently serves about 130 to 150 participants a week through its various programs.

“We hope all our participants gain knowledge of themselves,” O’Callaghan said. “We’re just hoping to bring the best out of each individual we get here and provide a sense of community.”

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