Horses for Heroes

Krystle Wagner • Oct 26, 2015 at 8:51 PM

Niles quickly snatched peppermint candies from Joan Peterson’s hand, and then the big horse moved his head back toward the woman for more treats as she walked into his stall.

Within the next month, Niles and two other recently rescued thoroughbreds will partner with veterans for a new program, called Horses for Heroes, at Out Side In Stables in Grand Haven Township. The equine-assisted psychotherapy program pairs former racehorses with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional and mental challenges.

The program also helps the horses overcome physical and emotional injuries. Since the horses are typically younger than 5, it also gives them as a chance at a second career as therapy horses, family horses or show horses.

There are parallels between what trainers encounter when rehabilitating horses that come off the racetrack and what veterans experience, said Jennifer McVoy, executive director of Out Side In. They both have to learn to trust, overcome socialization issues, and get acclimated to different environments and lifestyles, she said.

Similar programs are in place around the country, McVoy said, and research has shown it is effective.

Like humans, horses also have a fight-or-flight response; however, they return to normal within seconds, unlike humans who remain on alert, McVoy said.

Studies have shown a human heart rate slows down and becomes more relaxed when they are around horses, McVoy said.

During the three-month program, veterans will work with the horses two days a week for two hours. Another hour will be spent processing the horse’s rehabilitation and how it relates to what they’ve gone through.

The program recently received a $10,000 grant from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation and $10,000 from the Barbara and Miller Sherwood Family Advised Fund. It is also being funded by 100 or More Women Who Care and After the Finish Line.

The funding will allow for four three-month sessions, McVoy said.

Although the program has been in the works for a while, it was partially delayed until an indoor arena could be built to house the sessions and horses for the cold and winter months. A recent donation has helped fund the frame of the arena, and stable staff will continue the fundraising efforts to build stalls in it.

After completing the program, McVoy said she hopes the veterans will become volunteers and mentors for the children in other therapy programs at the stable.

Peterson, who sponsored Niles’ rescue and for him to go to Out Side In, said the big horse is helping her. She also said Niles will “be better for a veteran.” Peterson sponsored the horse through a Wish of a Lifetime, which provides wishes for aging residents.

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