‘Something magical that happens:’ The equine-assisted therapy program in Osceola helping veterans

Spending time with animals has been shown to be beneficial for both our physical and mental health.

But it’s not just cats and dogs that can reduce stress.

This week’s Getting Results Award segment takes us to an equine-assisted therapy program getting results for veterans with PTSD.

Gregory Henderson never thought he’d be up in the saddle and tugging on the reins of a horse named “Pal.” But here he was, along with about 10 other veterans, going through a series of exercises under a covered arena at the Osceola County Therapeutic Equestrian Center in St. Cloud.

“I was around them when I was young. I’m originally from Alabama,” Henderson explained, “I saw a horse kick my cousin one time. I said, ‘man, I’m not messing with no horse,’” Henderson said with a laugh.

Now the Army veteran and “Pal” have a special bond.

“I would have never thought a horse could look at a person’s emotions and they know when you’re having a bad day,” Henderson said. “They’ll nudge you around. They’ll watch you, if you’re emotional, crying out, you just let it all out or sit there and talk to the horse.”

Henderson spent 27 years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq.

“I went through a lot of trauma over there, I’ve seen a lot of things and been into a lot of things,” Henderson said. “I don’t mind talking about it now because the program here helped me open up a whole lot better. I used to shut down.”

The program is called Horses & Heroes at Camp McCormick. The 12-week program helps veterans diagnosed with PTSD reconnect to civilian life and rediscover a sense of purpose.

Eric Davidson, CEO of McCormick Research Institute, knows first-hand that the program not only works, it can also save lives.

“We’re working with veterans that, I think, are going through the thick of it,” Davidson said. “Some of them are suicidal, some of them are struggling to thrive despite the adversity they’re going through. This is a place you can come to and lay it all out there on the table. You can be real and raw and the people here understand it.”

Davidson spent 12 years in the Army before being injured in Iraq.

“I loved it. I would have been a lifer,” Davidson said. “I was wounded and I had to come face-to-face with the idea that they were going to medically retire me. It was a big strike to my identity as a soldier.”

Davidson went through the program 10 years ago.

“I showed up not knowing what to expect, and I can tell you when that horse chose me, that was the spark that I needed to kind of rejuvenate me,” Davidson remembered.

Alejandro Rizera went through a number of other therapy programs with little success before finding Camp McCormick.

“This one really gave me a spark,” Rizera said. He calls it a view from the other side of a coin. “It’s a different point of view. A different way to look at life and a way to approach the problems we face on a daily basis.”

Many of those tough conversations happen in “The War Room.” The air conditioned space near the stables looks more like a lounge than a therapist’s office. Soft leather couches, a big screen TV, wood floors and soft lighting provide a sense of comfort for group therapy.

“This is where the stories come out,” Davidson said. “This is where the impact happens.”

“There’s something magical that happens,” Davidson said. “I’ve watched people show up here and they don’t want to be here, but six weeks down the road they start communicating, start opening up. When you do that the healing starts.”

“I can firmly say I’m a true believer that horses heal,” Rizera said with a smile. “I’m living proof.”

The McCormick Research Institute has a history that goes back decades. Formerly known as Heavenly Hooves, it began in 2002 at the home of the Tompkins family. From 2002-2005, miniature horses were transported from the Tompkins stable to Give Kids the World Village, where they provided equine-assisted activities and therapies for children with life-threatening illnesses.

In 2006, the organization moved to Osceola County’s Heritage Park and expanded services to include ongoing mental, physical, and emotional therapies to individuals with disabilities.

In 2011, the organization began a collaboration with the University of Central Florida College of Medicine and introduced the Horses & Heroes program that serves veterans struggling with PTSD.

In 2013, Osceola County voted to build a facility in support of the organization’s vision to grow into an expansive research and educational center. In late 2016, the facility was complete.

In 2014, the organization was rebranded to The McCormick Research Institute which now encompasses the Heavenly Hooves program, Horses & Heroes program, Education program, and Research initiatives.

The McCormick Research institute is partnering with UCF to develop a standardized curriculum for the equine-assisted therapeutic industry. They hope to duplicate their success for other veteran programs across the country.

“The idea is we don’t want to build places like this all over the nation, we want to provide the curriculum and the ability to train the trainers to do it nationally,” Davidson said. “We don’t want to just impact lives, we want to save lives.”

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