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Aug. 4, 2021

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Veterans find horse care, riding therapeutic

Program takes referrals from VA, helps participants lower anxiety level

By , Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published:
6 Photos
Kate Hudgin, left, and Graci Dissen speak Sunday about horse Diesel and the Windhaven Therapeutic Riding program for veterans.
Kate Hudgin, left, and Graci Dissen speak Sunday about horse Diesel and the Windhaven Therapeutic Riding program for veterans. Photo Gallery

When Kate Hudgin left the Army in 2010, after working as a mechanic, she could barely walk unassisted. She had trouble recovering after she was hurt, badly, in training, and often faced crippling depression after leaving the service.

Then she found Windhaven Therapeutic Riding in La Center.

“It changed my life,” she said. “Everybody that’s in the program has the same story to tell. There are people that don’t leave their houses unless it to come up and work with the horses.”

Hudgin and other program staff spoke about the program, with Windhaven horse Diesel in tow, Sunday at the Washington State Horse Expo.

Hudgin started helping out with Windhaven late last year and started participating with their classes about 1 1/2 months ago.

She said her medication has dropped from a handful of pills with each meal to a few per day, and now she’s working on becoming a full-time instructor for other veterans who come to Windhaven.

“There are people who don’t sleep at night,” she said. “Since they’ve been working with the program, they’re able to sleep at night because they have something to focus on.”

Windhaven, a riding and horse care program aimed at veterans, was there with the mounted archery performances, fancy riding displays, horsemanship tip sessions and hundreds of vendors.

Windhaven Operations Manager Rodger Morrison said they started programs in late January, after two years of planning.

Windhaven’s board has veterans and nurses, and they take referrals from the Veterans Administration, said Morrison, who once worked as a hospital administrator and is an Army veteran.

“We take somebody that doesn’t know the nose from the tail, and we walk them through using natural horsemanship methods,” Morrison said.

The horses choose their veteran, and they work together to learn basic care and training. At the end of the program, the veterans go on a trail ride and camping trip.

Horses, Morrison said, are incredibly empathetic animals, often more so than cats or dogs, and it has a soothing effect.

“What happens is that the horse mirrors back because they are extremely sensitive,” he said. “They mirror back to the veteran what the veteran is feeling.”

It hasn’t just been veterans getting help: One horse, Dandy, was weak after spending two years in a small stall with little time outside, and Diesel was virtually unrideable 15 months ago, Morrison said. Hudgin said a former owner used a barbed-wire spit on him.

Now, Diesel is comfortable enough to carry a rider while blindfolded, and ride with a 3-year-old and a cat. Morrison has the video to prove it.

“What we do is we build total trust in the animals,” he said, and all that training is part of why it took Windhaven so long to get started.

Morrison said one of the veterans he works with is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, who says he’d rate his daily anxiety an 8 to 10 out of 10. “He usually leaves with a self-assessed anxiety level, an hour-and-a-half later, of 2 or 3,” he said.

Reuben Vargas served in the Marines from 1971 to 1975, and his wife, always a horse person, convinced him to try the program.

After about a month in, he’s got a friend in horse Dandy, and he was volunteering at Windhaven’s booth at the expo.

“It just makes my day, really,” he said of the program. “It’s the only day I look forward to getting out, so it must be doing something right.”

Columbian environment and transportation reporter
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