Lisa Coble spent four mornings over the summer working with horses at a 41-acre ranch, participating in equine-assisted therapy for Veteran/caregiver pairs, an innovation project led by the Eastern Colorado VA caregiver support team. The team offers resources to individuals looking after a Veteran’s health and wellness.

Man leading a horse

Army Veteran Daniel Luther leads a horse during equine-assisted therapy.

With a circle of chairs in the stables, a social worker and nurse led check-ins for the summer rotation’s final three-hour session. Ranch volunteers were preparing four American paint horses for unmounted activities in a 100-by-180-foot enclosed training arena.

“The first session, she was really down and felt lost,” said Coble, who entered the arena with mother and Army Veteran Josephine Dixon. “One of her goals was to get her smile back. Within the first half hour, her demeanor changed. She engaged more. She was all smiles.”

Horses reflect human emotions

“I didn’t think I needed anything,” said Dixon. “But this experience brought something out. It helped my daughter and I communicate better.”

Dixon, 84, had been overwhelmed by the horses, specifically their massive heads. She first walked with Shorty, a miniature horse with a braided mane. She stepped on sand softened with natural oils. With the right shoes, she felt steady enough to hold the leads of the full-size horses trained in Western dressage.

“I’m now quite comfortable with the whole thing,” said Dixon. “I didn’t know you could talk to these huge animals and they’d respond like this.” At times, the sessions involve a herd of horses when everyone must effectively face their fears and obstacles to communicate with a collective calm, knowing the horses would reflect human emotions in their responsiveness.

Dixon served in the early 1960s on the Japanese island of Okinawa. As an Army medic, she recalls the faces of troops preparing for Vietnam. Army Veteran Daniel Luther, whose 30 years of service included combat in Vietnam and the Gulf War, was also in the training arena.

“You need things that bring down the pressure.”

Luther, 76, was recovering from back surgery. The retired command sergeant major says a soldier’s body takes a beating after a couple of decades. Veterans often face years of high physical and mental intensity, compounded by tough transitions.

“When you’re in combat, your life gets tense, your mental capacity gets tense,” said Luther. “When you get home, you need to make a living, so it’s one tense situation to another. You need things that bring down the pressure so you can live your life.

“This is a very relaxing situation,” he continued, while watching Tae, his wife of 47, years run with a horse, continuing to overcome her initial reluctance to get near them. She later attempted an unmounted side pass, asking a horse to walk sideways. “In a way, it tests to see how you’re changing.”

“The emotions you put out and the feedback you get back from the horses, it’s immediate,” said nurse Justin Cobler, explaining how the spontaneousness keeps everyone engaged. “It’s all very natural and off the cuff. Things just kind of come out.”

Emotions come out and trust is established

The caregiver support team’s innovation project got a boost last summer when Jennifer Auger, clinical social worker, connected with a colleague leading equine-assisted therapy for Veterans recovering from substance abuse at San Diego VA. They partnered to tailor that curriculum for caregiver support.

Woman petting a horse

Tae Luther communicates with a horse during equine-assisted therapy.

Within three months, the VA Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Program granted nearly $30,000 to certify the social workers in equine therapy and acquire facilities in El Paso County and Boulder County. The program is designed to accelerate employee-inspired innovations.

“This is, hands down, the favorite part of our job,” said Auger, wrapping up her eighth therapy rotation since receiving the innovation funding. “The transformations we’ve seen are so profound. They feel safe to be vulnerable. Emotions come out. Trust is established. Horses have their own ability to reach out and form a bridge to other beings.”

“It’s a blessing to provide our facility and horses,” said Cindy Rau-Sobotka, who bought the El Paso County ranch in 2003, ahead of retiring from the Air Force. Rau-Sobotka opened the Holistic Therapeutic Equine Center.

“VA team is a great team.”

“It’s Veterans helping Veterans,” said Rau-Sobotka. Her ranch volunteers were also Veterans. “We’re in here working with Veterans to help them heal emotionally and become more self-aware and confident and improve their communication.”

“The team VA brought together here, it’s a great team,” said Luther, after asking to again participate in the innovative therapy. “They’re accepting of every personality and the things they’ve been through. They don’t demand anything. They’re here to help.”

“Anyone can have a horse. Anyone can be a social worker,” said Coble. “This requires people who are dedicated to the program and Veterans. Everyone is bringing a lot of passion.”

“Healing with Horses” sessions are currently scheduled in El Paso County and Boulder County through October for Veteran/caregiver pairs.

By Dustin Senger

Deputy public affairs officer, Eastern Colorado VA

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Published on Sep. 10, 2022

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One Comment

  1. ERIN E SMITH-COHEN September 15, 2022 at 12:35 am - Reply

    Is this program offered in any other states?

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