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A horse hangs its head outside of its stable as a student gently pets its face

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ccupational therapy professor Donna Latella was in a serious car accident in October 2015. “That day was my 28th wedding anniversary, and a car ran a red light and hit me at top speed. I thought I was dead,” recalls Latella.

Besides totaling her car, she suffered a back injury and later, post-traumatic stress disorder. “I became afraid to drive,” she says, adding that her injuries also made it impossible to pursue one of her favorite pastimes: horseback riding. Still, Latella found herself heading to the stables where she boards her four horses. “I realized that I was taking comfort from just being with the horses,” she says. “I didn’t need to be riding.” From that realization, an idea was born.

People with PTSD may experience nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss, insomnia, avoidance of social interactions, fear, depression, addiction, decreased concentration and other symptoms. Latella is certified and has taught therapeutic riding to people with physical and developmental challenges for many years, but she wondered whether people suffering with PTSD and other mental challenges could be helped by working with horses on the ground. “A lot of people aren’t aware that this, too, can decrease stress and increase confidence.”

Latella put her theory to the test by developing Heroes and Horses, an innovative equine learning program to help Quinnipiac student veterans cope with PTSD or service-related anxiety. Five occupational therapy students assisted Latella as part of their capstone course.

For six weeks, four veterans spent two hours every Sunday at the JC Eventing Barn in North Haven, Connecticut, grooming, walking and caring for horses. Although it is difficult to quantify success, Latella said one of the veterans disclosed how it has been difficult talking with people, but he found it was easier to communicate with the animals. “That was very significant,” says Latella, who began the program by educating the veterans on safety techniques and body mechanics. Therapy horses have exceptional levels of tolerance and gentleness and are generally well-mannered and in good health.

Jakob Loren was diagnosed with major depressive disorder while serving in the U.S. Air Force. He began attending QU in Fall 2015, where his symptoms continued. “I had no previous exposure to horses, so I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says.

“We began each session by brushing the horses, then we usually walked them around a bit; sometimes we’d set up a course,” says Loren, who is studying finance. “The most interesting thing is that if you were agitated, the horse would be more irritable, but if you were calm, the horse would be calm, too. I think anybody with depression, veteran or not, can benefit from this program.”

Latella notes that most of the horses they use are older (horses often live into their late 20s or early 30s), and some are therapy-certified by Pet Partners. “Of course, no horse is spook-free, but we only work with horses that are considered safe,” she points out. Her primary therapy horse is 27 years old. “We call him Steady Eddie, and he has lived up to his name.”

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the reasons why equine therapy works, Latella explains it this way: “A horse is a 1,200-pound animal. When you can bond with an animal that is so large, an animal that could otherwise make you feel scared or overpowered, it can be very empowering.”

Eulogio Valentin Jr., who is scheduled to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree in 2019, served in the U.S. Army for six years, including deployments to Korea and Cuba. He didn’t know what to expect from the equine program, but ended up appreciating the experience.

“Something as simple as grooming ended up being really relaxing and calming,” he says. He found that Minnie, the horse he worked with, seemed to notice subtle mannerisms of hidden stress. “The program was a real help with just releasing stress from the school week, from studying for exams or getting overwhelmed with the work load. It was a chance to live a simple life for an hour … to just stop and smell the roses.”

Photograph

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Maureen Friedly ’16 says goodbye to the horse she cared for as a participant in the program

Stable condition

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Maureen Friedly ’16 says goodbye to the horse she cared for as a participant in the Heroes and Horses program last spring.

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Maureen Friedly ’16 graduated with a health sciences degree. She suffers from crippling anxiety years after being sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. “It can be hard to find a program to help; most of the programs are held at the VA Hospital, and I have a young child and find it hard to get there. Also, I haven’t been officially diagnosed with PTSD, so many organizations won’t accept me.”

Friedly, who started riding horses at age 6, is the only participating veteran with previous equine experience. “I was able to teach the other vets a couple of cool things,” she says, adding that the fact that the program was free and she could bring her 3-year-old daughter, Arlette, sweetened the deal. “They would pair my daughter up with one of the mini-horses,” she says. “She talks all the time about going to the barn to see her favorite horses, or ‘her friends’ as she calls them.”

At one time, Friedly was interested in a career in large animal veterinary medicine. Instead, she recently started a small farm with her husband on their 1.25-acre property in Middletown, Connecticut, after realizing that it better reflects her current interests. But she did find the program helpful. “It was a really nice way to decompress from the week and feel refreshed for the next week,” she says. “It was nice to get away from the rest of the world for a little while.”

In fact, Friedly was so comforted by working with horses again that she is preparing to own one herself. “My dad’s wife has a quarter horse named Legacy that she can’t take care of anymore. So, she is giving him to us, and I have a neighbor who boards horses. We are just making sure that financially, we are ready to have him come.”

Latella believes this work is valuable and is working toward a special board certification in equine mental health practice through the University of Denver. She is hoping to obtain grant funding to extend the program into the community.

Megan Perez is one of the five occupational therapy students whose capstone course project involved setting up the program under Latella’s leadership, working with the veterans and the horses at the stable, and trying to quantify the benefits of their work. Ultimately, the students hope to have a research study published in the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Journal. Perez has found the work so inspirational that she hopes to land a job working with veterans after she takes her board exams early next year.

On the sixth Sunday of the program, Latella and the students planned a final ceremony at the stables for the veterans, their friends and family. Latella and her husband, Domenic, a Navy veteran, and OT student Lydia Anderson opened the program with choreographed routines on horseback, set to patriotic songs. Afterward, Friedly, Loren, Valentin and Alex Hartman, a veteran and game design sophomore, participated in a “journey walk,” leading horses over small obstacles around the ring.

But the most touching part of the day came when the veterans were asked to take chalk that had been soaked in water and write a single word that summed up their experience right on the side of their horse. “It took a few minutes for the words to show up, but then we saw them,” Latella shares.

“One veteran had written ‘Respect.’ Another had written ‘Release.’ It was so symbolic. It was beautiful.”