Warriors' worries melt thanks to therapy that fulfills 'need for steed'

  • Published
  • By David Edwards
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Quoting Winston Churchill is one of the most surefire ways to draw attention to something.

The Warrior Wellness Program run by the Air Force Academy Equestrian Center can vouch for that assertion. A flier promoting the program shares Churchill's musing that "the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man."

Directly below that is written: "We believe he was right."

Equestrian Center director Billy Jack Barrett and his colleagues have made believers of many wounded warriors from around Southern Colorado.

Most of the military personnel who have passed through the program are from Fort Carson. Former Army Sgt. Steve Champney is a prime example.

While at Fort Carson, he responded to an advertisement for the equine-therapy program at the Academy. He ended up accepting Barrett's offer to volunteer at the stables, which he did for the rest of his military career.

"It's almost like the horse could read me," he said. "When I was with the horses, it was like all those problems were behind me. My wife noticed that my spirit was picking up."

Champney said the equine therapists who worked with him and others in his group put the wounded warriors on assorted horses "so we could experience different personalities." Prior to joining the program, he knew nothing about horsemanship, so he was learning at the same time he was healing.

He also completed farrier training to master the horseshoeing craft. Now a civilian, Champney works in the motor pool at the Academy and remains committed to volunteering his time and services at the Equestrian Center as often as he can.

"I was helping out the animal that was helping me," Champney said. "Money couldn't pay for how these animals made me feel."

Another wounded warrior from Fort Carson, Army Sgt. First Class Jacob Legendre, says succinctly that the equine therapy program saves lives. He is effusive in his gratitude to Barrett and the Equestrian Center staff members who have helped him.

Like many participants in the program, Legendre is a member of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson. His temporary duty assignment is at the Equestrian Center, where he volunteers and takes part in the therapy regimen.

The Academy's Warrior Wellness Program is certified through the O.K. Corral Series, whose director, Greg Kersten, is the founding father of EAP, short for equine-assisted psychotherapy.

While working with at-risk youths in the early 1990s, Kersten developed the principles of horse-human interaction that would restore the mental health and overall wellness of war fighters with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other invisible battlefield wounds.

The O.K. Corral Series website explains why EAP produces results.

"Horses are skilled at keeping themselves safe and adept at survival; their natural behaviors are optimal for mental and physical health," the website states. "In many respects, humans have lost the instinct to keep themselves safe and healthy. We entrust horses to show us the way back to health."

The horses are full partners in the recovery process. Their ability to guide that process without being judgmental makes EAP more effective than traditional talk therapy in many cases.

"Horses are amazing animals at how they're able to discern the skill level of the person riding them, the state of mind of the person riding them," said Ken Roth, a wounded-warrior facilitator at the Equestrian Center. "It's hard to overstate the good that comes from the interaction with the horses."

Roth and several of his colleagues have received in-depth instruction in EAP from Kersten and are officially recognized as qualified practitioners of the therapy.

Academy cadets can get involved in the Warrior Wellness Program as well. The Equestrian Center offers several possibilities for cadets to practice leadership and community service. Assisting in the therapy of wounded warriors is one such opportunity.

Cadet 3rd Class Sloan Malay devotes part of his free time to teaching horsemanship skills and keeping children of wounded warriors occupied during equine-therapy sessions.

As director of the Equestrian Center and overseer of the Warrior Wellness Program, Barrett has built quite a following, and the program has built on its successes. Champney's continued involvement is representative of the willingness of alumni to return and help out even after their therapy is complete.

The Equestrian Center itself has an illustrious history. The building that houses Barrett's office was built by locals who were contemporaries of Teddy Roosevelt, another renowned politician who understood the therapeutic power of horses.

On the Warrior Wellness Program brochure, the quotation by Churchill isn't the only one. It's augmented by the words of Champney, who described how horses make him feel well grounded.

So if the wounded warriors undergoing EAP at the Academy can be judged by the company they keep -- both current and historical -- then they are nurturing a real thoroughbred.