SUNY Cobleskill

Each week, a group of veterans from Albany Stratton VA Medical Center eagerly arrives at SUNY Cobleskill’s Equine Center.

Registered Nurse Lyndsey Rhodes said the vibe on the bus prior to arriving in Cobleskill for a therapeutic horsemanship program is comparable to a bus ride en route to a high school homecoming game. Emotions may be high and everyone’s revved up, she said.

After spending two hours with the horses, she said, the atmosphere completely changes.

“You can hear a pin drop on the ride home, whereas on the way there you can’t even hear the person next to you,” Rhodes said. “Everyone comes home in a better place than they went there in.”

As part of the program, the veterans carefully practice grooming, handling and leading the Equine Center horses. They also participate in trust-building and communication exercises. All programming with the horses is done unmounted, or strictly on the ground, Rhodes said.

The activities include writing down personal goals and setting them on the ground to create a physical obstacle course that the horses have to complete, Rhodes said. The veterans also do height and weight measurements, learn about horse body language and observe horse herds, she said. A therapeutic exercise could simply involve becoming comfortable with the presence of the horse behind them.

Therapeutic horsemanship is a practice that uses horses as motivational tools “to help people with special needs improve listening skills, focus, sequencing and coordination,” according to SUNY Cobleskill’s web page on therapeutic horsemanship. It also helps with the development of self confidence, patience and control.

In 2016, SUNY Cobleskill introduced a bachelor of technology degree program in therapeutic horsemanship. It was the first in the state to offer certification by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International as part of the degree program, according to a 2016 SUNY Cobleskill media release.

SUNY Cobleskill and Albany Stratton VA Medical Center this spring launched a collaboration to bring veterans to the college’s Equine Center each week, fortifying the college’s equine-assisted activities. This program was originally slated to only run through the spring, but was extended, according to a Nov. 4 media release from SUNY Cobleskill.

Therapeutic Horsemanship Associate Professor Marny Mansfield said the program benefits the students, too.

Students may come in stressed out or anxious with school work or personal issues, Mansfield said. However, once they’re assisting the veterans, this energy seems to melt away and they seem calmer, relaxed and more grateful as well, she said.

Working with veterans also gives therapeutic horsemanship students an advantage because programs for veterans are becoming more common, Mansfield said. Nearly 8,000 PATH International members worldwide help more than 6,700 veterans and active-duty military personnel each year, according to PATH International’s website.

Rhodes said she’s seen a huge reduction in anxiety and anger levels with the veterans. She said some veterans tell her they wish others in their lives were as easy to talk to and as nonjudgmental as the horses. Many tell her they don’t feel like they have to keep up a “tough guy act” around the animals.

“It’s so heartwarming to come home on the bus and just feel so grateful,” Rhodes said. “It makes your heart smile.”

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.

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