Horses Lead War Veterans On The Road To Recovery
As a marine, Erik Stoeckle led reconnaissance missions across war torn Iraqi deserts. Now, with a body riddled with steel plates and nerve damage down his ride side, the retired soldier leads a different battalion outside Georgetown – a cookies-and-creme colored horse names Pokey.
“They say I’m attached at the top and bottom of my spine with plates and screws, and that’s pretty much true. In my neck, the center of it all, part of the disc had to be removed, and the last disc of my spine got completely blown out,” Stoeckle said. “But now, it’s like having those same people back.”
Stoeckle is a member of the Horses for Heroes program at Ride-On Center for Kids, or ROCK, an equine therapy program for injured soldiers that evolved from a program for disabled children. Riding and working with horses helps build physical conditioning and coordination, as well as develop social skills after trauma or disability.
Stoeckle’s story is a bit different from most returning veterans – he was pinned down by a five ton truck engine in a maintenance room, rather than injured by enemy fire. But he’s still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Pokey is also helping him with therapy for walking and speech. And others, like Joe Keller, who endured two terms of duty in Iraq before losing a close friend, are coping with change and fear on a more fundamental level.
But the horses are helping, they say.
“It’s a trust thing. You learn to trust your horse. You learn to walk behind ‘em, you know?” Keller said. “He knows he can trust you, and he’s got that built up trust, and it is exactly like a team.”
Coordinators at ROCK say that’s a great development. The center was created in 1998 to help disabled children, and founder Nancy Krenek said many of the returning soldiers are seeing the same results as child participants. Riding in a saddle emulates human walking, for example, which can mean a great deal for those with walking disabilities. Horses also help cultivate social development and human bonds, both in children and adults, in ways that compliment traditional therapy.
So far, Krenek said the program has been a success. They’ve been treating soldiers for about five years, and both Ft. Hood and the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio have cooperated with and participated in the program. ROCK also recently received a $24,000 grant from the Red Cross, and similar programs have cropped up across the country.
“We’d love to work ourselves out of a job. But as long as we have this war going on and these wonderful people that are serving for us so we can have our freedom, this is going to continue on,” Krenek said. “These problems that they’re coming back with, these are not short term fixes.”
— Marcus Funk, Public Media Texas, www.publicmediatexas.org
The Horses For Heroes program will have a media invite September 1 at the Ride On Center for Kids in Georgetown.