TEXARKANA More than seven years after a local ranch opened to serve special-needs children, plans are to expand those services to include military veterans returning from overseas combat.
The Runnin' WJ Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center is preparing to offer an outreach program developed recently for the special needs of U.S. military veterans. The program is known as "Horses for Heroes."
The ranch continues to offer horseback riding as a form of physical therapy to children with autism, physical disabilities, Down syndrome and visual and hearing impairments.
The ranch wants to expand that therapy to include military veterans suffering from combat fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations or other severe injuries.
"Right now, we are trying to work with the local VAs to provide therapeutic riding for veterans returning home from overseas," said Sam Clem, Runnin' WJ executive director. "We would like to serve veterans with emotional and physical limitations."
Besides veterans with limitations, Clem said the ranch also needs able-bodied veterans who would like to volunteer and help their fellow disabled veterans by becoming horse handlers or sidewalkers.
"We need mobile veterans as volunteers because it would be great to see veterans out here helping their fellow comrades in arms," Clem said. "We want to help veterans suffering from traumatic circumstance and we want veterans who would like to help their fellow veterans overcome the physical or psychological trauma."
During the past five years, more than 10,000 military personnel have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan severely wounded-both physically and emotionally traumatized by their experience.
Estimates in recent years put 38,000 to 43,000 veterans living in the Texarkana and Northeast Texas area. These veterans include servicemen and women from the 1991 Operation Persian Gulf War and Vietnam War veterans as well as veterans returning from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Besides helping with their physical and emotional needs, Clem said the ranch could also tend to a vet's spiritual needs.
"We really want this to be a place where veterans can come to and feel like they are in a place they can be loved and call home," Clem said. "It's time to give and we need to give to our soldiers and show them Christ's love."
To accommodate the new program, the ranch will need to get larger horses, since the 15 horses the Runnin' WJ has are mostly large enough to carry children, not adults.
Clem said the ranch also will need a new ramp and lift to help place adults on the horses.
To prepare for the expanded therapeutic services, Clem said community support, both corporate and individual, is needed.
"With community support this would really work, because once given a chance to give, the community could then return just a part of the blessing our soldiers have given to all of us through their service to our country," he said. "We need local veterans' groups, the Red River Army Depot, the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant, as well as anyone else interested."
The idea of therapeutic horse riding for combat injured or traumatized war veterans started in the spring of 2007 when the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association started the Horses for Heroes program after association officials observed the results of a pilot program at Fort Myer, Va., in 2006, according to a fall 2006 issue of NARHA's STRIDES.
The pilot program results showed improvements in disabled veterans' physical balance, coordination, core muscle strength and equilibrium as well as improvements in morale and confidence. Many of these same veterans also felt empowered by having their fellow soldiers serve as sidewalkers and horse handlers.
For more information see Monday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.