Associated Press

DRUMRIGHT (AP) — Coming home from war in one piece is a task in itself, but it’s the invisible damage that can have the worst effects.

At a local ranch south of Drumright, volunteers are doing their best to heal invisible wounds one ride at a time.

A new program at Right Path Riding Academy pairs veterans with horses for therapeutic riding classes. Right Path’s founder Leslie Kirkland said it’s the social transformation of each rider that’s fulfilling to see.

“It’s watching them come in here not wanting to speak to anybody, wanting to check it all out and make sure it’s safe,” Kirkland said. “To weeks later watching them come in saying, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And they’re having more normal relationships with others and their family.

“They’re looking like they’re more able now to participate in society and therefore have a life.”

Riders spend most of the time practicing basic rider’s skills in the barn, starting early in the morning to avoid the mid-day heat. In May, Right Path received a $10,000 grant from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation that funds part of the Hooves on the Ground horsemanship program.

It took time to get the program started and work with Veterans Administration offices in Stillwater, Oklahoma City and Tulsa to get referrals, Kirkland said.

“For years, we’ve wanted to do a veterans’ program, for nine years actually,” Kirkland said. “The timing wasn’t right to find the veterans. They’re a group that don’t want to be found, the group that needs the help the most are the ones that isolate themselves and don’t want to be found.”

The horses act as mediators and companions to veterans in the program, answering emotions with unconditional affection and earned loyalty.

Kirkland said a horse’s behavior is similar to the people it’s helping.

“All horses want to do is eat grass and be left alone,” Kirkland said. “What does someone with (PTSD) want to do? They want to do whatever they have to do to get by and be left alone. It’s a wonderful combination.

“A horse is a prey animal, so it’s constantly vigilant looking for predators. The guy coming home from war is doing the same thing. You put the two together and the trust begins to develop.”

The program depends on volunteers like veterans Jim Garrison and George Myrick. The duo work as extra eyes and hands with the rider and the horse in the name of safety.

But both of them know all too well the burden some riders carry. Myrick, a disabled Vietnam Veteran, served in the Marine Corps and said his own horses have shown the difference it can make.

“When I have flashbacks, my horses will come up and hug me,” Myrick said. “The only time they’ll ever hug me is if I’m having a flashback. And nobody’d ever trained them to do that, that’s just something they understand.

“They know what’s going on.”

The veterans program targets returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and uses horses to combat its symptoms. Garrison, who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and Mogadishu, Somalia, said horses have a unique way of relating to the rider. During the last class, Garrison said a retired army veteran with a prosthetic leg had a unique relationship with a horse.

“First day of class, all the horses were waiting and we took him in there and he was in a wheelchair,” Garrison said. “Horses were just checking him out, checking out his leg.”

The horses were investigating the soldier’s prosthesis, and after a time one of the horses simply nuzzled the man’s cheek and laid his head in his lap. Myrick said it was as if the horses could sense what the soldier had been through.

“The horse was giving his total self to that man,” Myrick said. “That’s something that you get a feeling inside of you, no other feeling is any greater than that.”

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