EGAN, Texas (AP) The Army hasn't used horses, except in ceremonies, since the 1930s.
But Janie Dann wants to introduce horses to a new generation of soldiers who are struggling to overcome debilitating injuries from their service.
"We are ready now," said Dann, a volunteer at Wings of Hope Equitherapy in Johnson County. "This is not a pony ride. It is a structured curriculum to assist people in their recovery."
NARHA - - The North Texas-based Wings of Hope program got the idea to pair wounded veterans with horses from a similar organization in Georgetown, which works with active-duty soldiers who are recovering from injuries at Fort Hood. The program is blossoming nationwide into something called Horses for Heroes. Some 30 Veterans Affairs medical centers feature some kind of equine therapy.
Long accustomed to working with people with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, paralysis and Down syndrome, Wings of Hope wants to implement a program to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have traumatic brain injuries, missing limbs or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The horses are ready, and so are the instructors and volunteers. The funding, they say, is not a problem either.
All they're missing is the veterans.
"We're trying to get a pipeline developed," Dann said.
But the Veterans Affairs Department's Medical Center in Dallas doesn't yet know enough about the program to sign off. Dr. Richard Robinson, who leads the VA's polytrauma medicine unit in Dallas, said he and others would need to better understand Wings of Hope before sending patients.
"It isn't for us to give a name and send them on their way," Robinson said. "We don't do that with any other type of care. We maintain an open mind about providers, but we want to make sure that this is the best program for our patients."
Wings of Hope
Wings of Hope, founded in 1996 and run entirely on private donations, got the idea for the program from a similar organization in Georgetown, which works with active-duty soldiers who are recovering from injuries at Fort Hood.
The program is blossoming nationwide into what is called Horses for Heroes. Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq, has been a major supporter of equine therapy, and Robinson said that up to 30 VA medical centers have some sort of equine therapy.
The primary benefit for those with disabilities is physical. A horse's four-step gait mimics a human's, meaning sitting on a horse moves many of the same muscles on a human as walking would.
The movement of a horse slowly walking around an arena or on a light trail ride is said to strengthen a person's core muscles, or those in the midsection. It is also key, they say, in helping to improve a person's balance.
Harder to quantify are the benefits volunteers and instructors see in the psychology of people when they ride.
"A horse is a good neutralizing tool, much better than a human," said Allison Griggs, an instructor at Wings of Hope. "People have to learn to communicate with a horse and read their signals. Being angry or being timid won't get you far."
Unlike people, "a horse will not talk back," Dann said. "But if you don't ask politely, they won't do what you want either."
The VA is not the only place where Wings of Hope is working to connect with young veterans. But absent a major active military base nearby, it has been difficult for volunteers such as Dann to locate veterans who are dispersed all over North Texas.
Board member Gary Brooks, who served in the Air Force for 16 years, jumped at the chance to be a volunteer for veterans.
"I told Janie, 'When you get this going, I will be involved,' " Brooks said.