Horses help combat vets' transition to civilian life

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by TERESA WOODARD

WFAA

Posted on May 18, 2014 at 11:23 PM

Updated Monday, May 19 at 8:19 AM

WYLIE — She can't say a word, yet Haley certainly seems to speak... and teach.

"I think for a lot of our riders that come out here, one of the hardest things is for them to be vulnerable emotionally again," said Jeff Hensley, program coordinator for Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wylie, where Haley is a horse that acts like a counselor.

"With a horse, it's an authentic bond with a creature that doesn't have an ulterior motive," Hensley said. "There's no hidden agenda when they're working. So it's a safe way to open your heart again."

"It's that first step they need to feel the same way toward loved ones in their lives," he added.

On a Tuesday night in May, the end of several weeks of training came to an end with a show and final competition for the Hooves for Heroes program.

Veterans are paired with horses and learn how to ride; but also learn valuable lessons about life.

"You can trust her. She's not gonna do anything crazy," said Brian Schehrer, an Army National Guard and Air Force veteran who is also a counselor. He rode Haley during the final show.

He has seen veterans learn to cope, to communicate, and to trust from a giant yet gentle teacher.

"Working with a powerful animal like that just helps you be calm," Schehrer said. "If you can handle this, you can handle other things."

Jonathan "JT" Tennent was in Iraq for 12 months and was injured while he was there. Haley has been his partner through the Hooves for Heroes program, too.

"I guess me being around her, she's able to relax and vice-versa — we're able to feed off each other in that respect," Tennent said.

Hooves for Heroes is for military members and spouses, and it is one of the organizations supported by the 2014 Carry the Load Dallas Memorial March.

"We've had riders from as far back as Vietnam out with us," Hensley said. Seventy-two veterans and four spouses have taken part in the program since its inception in 2012.

Hensley coordinates it all, and he is proof of the difference it makes. He underwent equine therapy when he came home from his final deployment in Iraq.

"The fact that I had to learn a new language to bond with the horse," he said, "to some extent that's the same thing I had to do with my family and friends when I came back, because of the experience I had in combat. They didn't have that, so we were speaking different languages in a lot of ways."

Haley and Schehrer placed first in show. But for every rider, every step is a win — in so many ways.

E-mail twoodard@wfaa.com

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