When you try something new that’s risky, it often takes special courage. But if you’re willing to step beyond your fears, the rewards that you discover in the Oregon outdoors can be life changing. This week, I discovered how horseback riding can help our most wounded warriors find strength to re-connect with their lives and the great outdoors.
At the BEAT Riding Center at Horsin-Around-Stables in Washington County, the BEAT goes on. It isn’t a marching tune or musical rhythm but words of encouragement, care and love. According to co-founder Jackie Hopper, BEAT is a horseback therapy program that helps people overcome their fears when the odds of life have been stacked against them. “It’s therapy that’s not in an office, so kids enjoy it,” noted the longtime horse riding instructor. “They don’t even know they’re having therapy while they’re riding the horses, but really the best help comes from the horse; like a tool.”
BEAT is the brainchild of Hopper, a woman who has a kind word for anyone willing to sit in a saddle. BEAT actually stands for “Bradley’s Equine Assisted Therapy.” Hopper began the program more than two decades ago when she was a Banks High School senior. She wanted to help a disabled 4-year-old child named Bradley through therapeutic riding exercises. The program she designed for his health worked so well that Hopper thought to expand the program to include disabled adults.
Hopper’s strategies for physical therapy are based upon a simple idea: horses know people better than people know themselves. “A horse has the ability to tell a person’s respiration, heart rate and even emotional state. They are like a fine tuned machine so if the kids are feeling upset or anxious I can always read the child’s feelings through the horse’s behavior. It’s a cool thing!”
One of Hopper’s newest riders is Doug Bohlmann, a tall and quiet man who does not reveal his pain in his actions or in his speech. His physical and emotional wounds are the pains of war. Bohlmann is a wounded warrior whose life was forever changed during his time in Iraq.
Doug was a dog handler. His partner was “Six,” a 12-year-old German Shepherd that sniffed out explosives. The two were part of a special US Marine unit in Iraq and they responded to the threats of planted IEDs or other explosives. They were often the first to arrive on scene to seek out the explosives before others walked into harm’s way. “We were always out there first,” said Bohlmann. “We tried to find the danger so that the convoys or patrols could go through.”
Bohlmann and Six worked together for nearly 4 years; theirs was a deep bond connected by time together and a 6-foot leash. They were not only close to each other but their work forced them close to the “smell of danger” everyday. “Sometimes we were lucky and found the explosives and we walked away and sometimes we weren’t so lucky,” said Bohlmann.
According to Bohlmann’s mom, who often travels to the Horsin-Around-Stables to watch her son, his luck ran out one hot summer day. Bohlmann was prescribed over a dozen medications for pain and post-traumatic stress, but nothing cured the anxiety and even anger that he felt when he had to leave his team and his longtime canine partner behind. “When I first got home I didn’t want to deal with anyone,” admitted the veteran. “If you weren’t a part of my unit and didn’t go through what I went through I really didn’t want to have anything to do with you.”
But his erratic behavior and mood swings dramatically began to disappear little more than nine months ago when he was introduced to BEAT through an adjunct program called “Horses for Heroes.”
“I found this place and it changed me quite drastically,” said Bohlmann. His confidence and his self-reliance and even peace of mind have returned through his time with the horses – especially one particular horse named “Condo.”
Hopper said the healing power of horses is remarkable: “Many folks come back from Iraq and other war zones with a feeling of disconnection from life. They cannot get back to how they felt before they went to war. But the horses will take them right back and love them for who they are. As long as they’re kind to the horse, the horse responds in kind.”
Bohlmann has improved so much through therapy riding – both physically and emotionally – that on most days he lends a hand and helps others or cares for the horses.
“He has slowly opened up and talked to us more and more,” said Hopper. “He’s told us a bit about what he’s been through but more importantly, he’s participating and contributing here. I think this is where he needs to be for now because it works.”
She adds that the “miracle” of horse therapy is that anyone can benefit: “we have blind children autistic adults – even clients with cerebral palsy – plus veterans struggling with PTSD. Both people and animals seem to react well and make a big difference in their qualities of life. That means a lot to me – makes me feel like I did something good to touch their lives.”