At Hope for Heroes, horses are the therapists

YELM, Wash. -- As Steven Ward brushes a palomino mare named Whiskey, the horse refuses to stand still while tied to the rail, stepping from side to side, occasionally pawing the dirt.

"She's a little anxious right now, probably because I'm a little anxious," Ward said.

At Hope for Heroes Horsemanship Center in Yelm, military veterans learn that the horses are simply reflecting their own feelings.

"Veterans are very good at hiding things," head instructor Debbi Fisher said. "They can just stand there at attention and you not know that they are just shaking like a leaf inside. These horses are the best lie detectors I have on the place."

"Sometimes we don't even know what we're feeling ourselves," Ward added. "The horse is going to mirror that and then we can either take a deep breath or whatever it is that you need to do."

Ward whispered to Whisky while he groomed her, easing her nervous action and his own nerves at the same time.

"What these horses are doing is actually teaching these veterans coping skills that they can take out with them into the community," Fisher said.

Veteran suicide is an epidemic in the U.S. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 military members and veterans commit suicide every single day.

The majority of U.S. veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder choose not to get treatment through the VA. The nonprofit Hope for Heroes provides a different, free option for military members and veterans, one where the horses are the therapists.

"The VA has been helpful but what the VA needs to do is prescribe more of this kind of thing," Ward said of equine therapy.

Ward said he served in Afghanistan in 2010. He's been different ever since.

"It shattered my worldview," he said. "The world's a darker place than I remembered before. A sense of safety is not there. The constant sense that something bad is about to happen: That's a very common theme with veterans."

He said he's had a hard time being in the moment in his life. Most of the time, he's thinking about something that happened in Afghanistan.

"I think I'm learning to be more in the moment," he said. "When you're with these animals, they really require you to be in the moment because they're big creatures."

On the day of this interview, Ward graduated from the Level 1 8-week training course with Hope for Heroes. The first eight weeks is all about horsemanship. Veterans learn to work with the horses on the ground and read their feelings. During this eight weeks, they do not ride.

"The ground work is good and I've really enjoyed building the relationship with Whiskey, but I'm really looking forward to riding," Ward said.

Now that he's graduated, he'll move on to the Level 2 8-week course, Introduction to Riding. By Level 3, veterans challenge their horsemanship with mountain obstacles and trail riding.

A recent Baylor University study on Fisher's equine therapy curriculum found that the rate of PTSD in veterans went down about 50 percent in the first eight weeks of the program. The study is further evidence the program works. But for Fisher, the proof is in the veterans.

"The ones that have actually said to me that this horse really changed my mind about committing suicide and given me purpose for living again, how can you not think what we're doing is not making a huge difference," she said through her tears.

As a nonprofit, Hope for Heroes runs on donations. Fisher and her husband, manager Bob Woelk, also use their own money to keep it going. The classes are free to all military members and veterans.

The success of the program and the number of veterans in need mean classes in Yelm quickly fill up.

"We so need to have more programs like this in our area," Fisher said. "I need to have other horse people who have hearts for veterans to come alongside us."

Hope for Heroes does consulting around the country for people wanting to start their own equine therapy programs with Fisher's curriculum.

"There's something magical about these creatures," Ward said.

A man who said he was initially reluctant to come - "My wife, she dragged me out here" - is now hooked eight weeks in.

"Who knows, maybe I end up starting one of these myself," Ward said.