WOODSTOCK – Mike McGonigal had never saddled a horse before.
But on a chilly day in a green-and-white barn off Route 176, the Carpentersville-based recruiter for the U.S. Army had to walk another veteran through saddling a horse one-handed while another veteran served as the other arm, directed by another veteran.
The day of horse-assisted therapy activities was a bit of a trial run for Operation Horses and Heroes, a nonprofit that looks to use horses as a tool to help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries and learn coping techniques.
The organization is in its second year, but this year the program has been revamped to include only equine-focused activities, said co-founder and President Jerry Paulsen.
The Elgin native sees the organization as a way to give back to his fellow veterans. He had left the Army after nearly three decades to raise his two kids as a single dad.
“It’s a way to help,” Paulsen said. “It’s kind of like the saying in the military about having a battle buddy. Horses are my battle buddy, and now we’re giving this to them.”
The program differs from many other equine therapy programs because it includes only ground activities, equine therapy expert Shannon Hautala said. Participants never get on the horse during the four or so days the program is tentatively set to run.
“[Riding programs] don’t work because they’re not actually digging into any of the underlying problems,” she said. “They’re not actually dealing with any of the issues. They’re not teaching them any coping skills.”
Operation Horses and Heroes designed its activities to raise participants’ self-awareness by showing them how they’re coping with the trauma they’ve experienced, Hautala said.
The participants find themselves acting out their coping skills without walking in knowing that’s what they’re going to do.
Horses are perfect for this kind of work because they’re prey animals, and they respond honestly to the actions of people around them, Hautala said.
“It’s such an honest communication, and it works so fast,” she said. “If you tried it with a dog, you wouldn’t get anywhere because they’re just going to do whatever you want. A horse does whatever they want.”
A challenge eminently clear when McGonigal and his fellow participants try to walk the horses down a path lined with wooden jump rails, dotted with apple chunks and piles of hay, and dubbed “Temptation Alley.”
“The idea is that the horse is tempted and they have to figure out how to problem solve and get it through,” Paulsen said. “In their own life then, as they’re tempted with different things or face different things, how do they get through that successfully?”
It’s a lesson McGonigal learned over his Saturday at the Woodstock barn.
“They showed us standing in front of a horse tells it to stop. Standing to the side of a horse tells it to push forward,” the Crystal Lake resident said. “It’s like the exact same way of dealing with another individual. It’s all about your mannerisms and all about the way that you say things and the way that you come across. That definitely hit home for me because I’m kind of an in-your-face type of person.”
Operation Horses and Heroes has three locations – Woodstock; Adrian, Michigan; and Springfield, Tennessee – and has been contacted about partnerships by other organizations around the country. The program is open to all veterans and active duty members.