On Saturdays, veteran Jon Steinmann visits a horse to heal what he calls his “hidden wound”– post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 39-year-old Vancouver resident served nearly 15 years in the U.S. Army. When he returned from Iraq, where he spent parts of 2004 and 2005 as an Army medic, nightmares plagued him.
“I saw a lot of stuff I kind of wish I wouldn’t have,” said Steinmann, 39. “I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide and overdoses. I felt responsible for a lot of them, even though I wasn’t.”
Mental health struggles linked to his time in Iraq landed him in the hospital for 10 days in 2006. Steinmann has leaned on a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, but last year he turned to equine therapy, which has helped him feel better than at any other time since he left Iraq.
At first, he was both “intrigued and skeptical.” Windhaven Therapeutic Riding in La Center asked Steinmann to believe in the healing power of horses: that riding them, grooming them, walking with them and breathing with them could make him less irritable, less depressed, less anxious and more happy.
As soon as Steinmann stepped into the arena with a horse, he felt a shift in himself. He believes the time at Windhaven is gradually reprogramming his brain. He feels more in control of his emotions; he’s learning to trust and develop relationships again.
“I feel like my breathing syncs up with the horse and things slow. It has a calming effect,” Steinmann said. “I can reflect on things. It’s helping me ground myself.”
‘A matter of companionship’
Denice Larson-Morrison and her family started working with veterans at Windhaven, a donation-funded nonprofit organization, three years ago, but the program’s roots stretch back to 1992. Larson-Morrison, a trauma nurse in a Portland hospital, was working in the emergency department when her then 2-year-old daughter Meghan was brought into the department after being hit by a car. The staff could not save Meghan and she died from her injuries.
After Meghan’s death, Larson-Morrison continued to work as a trauma nurse, puzzled by her ability to cope with her daughter’s death.
“I’d see all these broken people, and wonder why I was OK,” Larson-Morrison said. She’d ask herself, “Do I feel things like most people do?”
The answer eventually crystallized for Larson-Morrison. Each day after work, she’d go ride horses. And those horses were helping her navigate grief.
“It’s not a matter of riding,” Larson-Morrison said. “It’s a matter of companionship.”
Larson-Morrison wanted to use her experience to help others. In 2005, she started planning Windhaven’s program with her family, which has strong military ties. She served in the U.S. Navy. Her son Gabriel Larson served in the Army Reserves. Her husband, Rodger Morrison, served in the Army.
The family feels compelled to help veterans because they have the experience, perspective and resources to make a difference. As Gabriel Larson put it, “If you have the ability to fix this or have an impact on it and you don’t do something about it, what kind of person are you?”
Beyond fight or flight
According to Department of Veteran Affairs data from 2005 to 2015, an average of 17 veterans die by suicide each day. Another four active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists die by suicide each day, as reported by Stars and Stripes. Up to 30 percent of veterans have PTSD.
Research has shown that equine therapy can decrease symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries for veterans.
Windhaven typically has 13 to 15 veterans participating in its program, but right now the number is closer to eight, according to Rodger Morrison. Veterans in the program report decreases in anxiety, detachment, pain, irritability and fatigue and increases in energy, according to Windhaven’s internal questionnaires.
Morrison said veterans’ thoughts and emotions tend to get stuck in the brain stem, which is the most primitive part of the brain where survival mode — the fight-or-flight instinct — rules.
Working with horses requires veterans to access pathways into the limbic system of the brain (where emotional attachments form) and the neocortex (where reasoning and abstract thought occurs).
The veterans must observe the horses closely to discern their needs. By thinking about how to approach the horses, veterans learn how to build relationships — which helps them when dealing with people, too.
When veterans arrive for their first therapy session, they speed date the horses. But the horses are the ones choosing partners.
“The horses are the instructors. They are the key to this,” Morrison said. “Horses have personalities just like people.”
Over weeks of sessions, veterans walk with the horses, ride the horses, groom the horses and even take on grunt work if they want.
“For me, mucking poopy horse stalls is therapy,” Steinmann joked.
One 55-year-old veteran, who requested anonymity because she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about her PTSD publicly, said building trust with animals is a perfect bridge to building trust with humans again.
This veteran said that in the military she was constantly assessing whether someone could be trusted. With the horses, she felt comfortable because she knew they wouldn’t disappoint or hurt her.
Windhaven is a good place to “start playing with feelings again,” she said. “It was connecting with something that didn’t judge. I didn’t have to hide how I was feeling from the horse. I’ve made a life of hiding how I am feeling.”
Tending to Windhaven’s horses proved to be a turning point for Bo Russel, a 71-year-old Ridgefield resident. Ask him how long he served in Vietnam, and he’ll tell you exactly: 364 days, 10 hours, 36 minutes and 47 seconds. Nightmares and flashbacks of the war kept a decadeslong grip on him.
“You can’t outrun the devil,” Russel said.
He wasn’t able to find a more calm and peaceful life until he undertook a combination of therapies. He calls his time at Windhaven three years ago the “kicker” therapy that got him to where he is today.
“It sticks with you,” Russel said. “That’s the best part. Each day gets a little easier.”