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Therapeutic Riding Program Aims to Help Soldiers Heal

May 25, 2009 at 6:55 PM EDT
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A program at Northern Virginia's Fort Myer helps injured soldiers with their recovery by having them ride horses usually used in the formal funeral processions in Arlington National Cemetery. Kwame Holman reports.

GWEN IFILL: Next, a story about soldiers helping soldiers.

Thirty thousand servicemen and women have been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are left with life-altering injuries. Kwame Holman has our report on two Afghanistan war vets and their ride to recovery.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bright sun shines at Fort Myer military base outside Washington, D.C., as a riding class moves through campus. But a closer look reveals this is no ordinary ride: It’s physical therapy on horseback.

Two of the riders are double amputees, wounded in combat in Afghanistan.

1ST LT. BRIAN BRENNAN, U.S. Army: It was a year ago, May 7, 2008, and it was in Afghanistan. Hit an IED that split my Humvee in half, killed three guys, and me and my gunner were the only two to survive.

KWAME HOLMAN: First Lieutenant Brian Brennan is from New Jersey. Staff Sergeant Michael Downing, from Massachusetts, lost both of his legs in an IED attack in September.

Both are in the continuing care of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, rebuilding their bodies with physical therapy. But today their P.T. has a different tack.

STAFF SGT. MICHAEL DOWNING, U.S. Army: It’s a nice change of pace. Instead of doing regular P.T., same thing every day, it’s a different kind of workout. It’s nice to get outside.

Horseback therapy provides workout

KWAME HOLMAN: Putting the soldiers through their paces is retired Navy Commander Mary Jo Beckman. She created this therapeutic riding program three years ago with her colleague, Larry Pence.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. LARRY PENCE (Ret.), U.S. Army: We didn't have the riders riding with any saddles. We put them on pads. That's so that their hip girdle and their ab muscles will get used to mimicking the horse's movement. That facilitates their recovery for mobility and balance.

KWAME HOLMAN: Horseback therapy has been used for years to help children and adults with physical and mental disabilities.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. LARRY PENCE: And then we ask them to sit up straight, working on those core muscles. You saw some of the exercises that we put them through; that's to continue to work on their flexibility, as well as hand-and-eye coordination.

I think it's certainly challenging for some of those young men and women, or any age men and women, wounded warriors who have not been on horseback before.

1ST LT. BRIAN BRENNAN: It works the core, which is the main thing that you work, and it works the legs for P.T., works the inside of the thighs, which is good, and it's different.

Like he said, it's just getting out of the hospital. And being outside is quite possibly the greatest thing ever, because I've been in the hospital a long time. I've been there for about a year. So anything to get out of the hospital, I'll do.

Soldiers help other soldiers

KWAME HOLMAN: Many of those with traumatic war injuries have to find a balance between relearning independence and accepting help from others. Getting on and off a horse is hard. Guiding their fellow soldiers through all this is the Army's famous Caisson Platoon, known as the Old Guard.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. LARRY PENCE: We have Caisson Platoon soldiers from the 3rd Infantry, the Old Guard, participating as side walkers and lead walkers. And those side walkers and lead walkers enact the philosophy of soldiers helping soldiers.

STAFF SGT. MICHAEL DOWNING: You don't have stirrups or anything to help balance yourself, so it's nice to have them there just in case.

1ST LT. BRIAN BRENNAN: Having them there is a big help, so I wasn't really nervous. I know they wouldn't let me -- let anything get out of control and get me hurt.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. LARRY PENCE: They're there primarily for safety reasons, to make sure that should the rider loose his balance or the horse stumble, that they're there to help that rider regain balance.

So they get out of the clinical setting, away from the doctor and the therapist. They're out in the bright sunshine, beautiful sky, on the back of a horse, and in a non-threatening environment. They can talk to those fellow soldiers about sports, baseball, boys, girls, music, movies, whatever they want to. And those fellow soldiers are not going to be in any way judgmental about them, because they're there to help their wounded comrade recover and rehabilitate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Carefully carrying their charges are the hardest-working members of the Old Guard unit. As these horses were exercising Lieutenant Brennan and Sergeant Downing, others were doing what they are best known for: helping honor the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery.

COMMAND SGT. MAJ. LARRY PENCE: The horses of the Caisson Platoon have very serious duties to perform, whether it's a ceremony for the president, whether it's a funeral honors ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, or whether it's helping these wounded warriors recover.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Caisson Platoon therapeutic riding program has helped more than 70 wounded veterans on the path to recovery since 2006.