WEST BRIDGEWATER — Humans can learn from what it takes to get a horse to trust us.
A horse is a prey animal whose ears are always alert to danger and whose instinct is to flee, even from humans. The staff at Wild Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Program have a word for it: hypervigilance.
They see the same hypervigilance in people who have suffered trauma, particularly in some military personnel and veterans. In response, the organization started a program called Wild Hearts Horses for Heroes, which aims to help veterans and active-duty military personnel address problems that make it difficult to readjust to civilian life or return to duty, including post-traumatic stress disorder, other psychological issues, and traumatic brain injury.
On July 11 at a backyard farm in West Bridgewater, two Rhode Island veterans, Judy Feightner-Frederick and Rich Muldoon, will complete the program’s first veteran-specific class, Healing through Horsemanship.
Over the course of 10 weeks, the veterans learn to groom a horse, put on and remove a rope halter and lead, and guide the horse through a series of natural movements, such as walking, trotting, and turning.
Wild Hearts’ main program, equine-facilitated psychotherapy, is similar, but focuses less on horsemanship and more on specific goals set by a therapist. While the military program employs a horsemanship trainer, one-on-one therapy sessions are led by a clinical social worker, with Wild Hearts’ executive director, Julie Lovely, acting as the equine specialist.
Right now the program has only three clients because the therapist spends just one day a week at the farm, Lovely said.
Nicole Long, the social worker and equine-facilitated psychotherapist, watched during a recent class as Feightner-Frederick worked with Izzy, a gray Morab who Long said is accustomed to being the dominant horse.
“That’s why we’re so excited this is happening today,” she said. Despite Izzy’s inclinations to the contrary, he moved about the ring in response to Feightner-Frederick’s signals. His cooperation, she said, depends on the trusting relationship the handler has been able to build with him.
“Without that, none of this would happen,” she said.
Participants learn to respect the horse’s instincts, thereby reflecting on the congruence of feelings and actions, and they help the horse respond positively to an unfamiliar object.
Long said that although alertness can be positive and necessary for both horses and people, the program helps veterans to contain it, so it does not generate severe anxiety or the desire to isolate themselves from others.
Feightner-Frederick, 61, said trusting people has been difficult since she left the Army 20 years ago.
She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1974, four years before women were integrated into regular Army units. Back then, how to do one’s makeup and hair were still part of the training, she recalls.
When she later became the first woman working in the California headquarters of her unit, the men did not accept her, she said.
She was stationed in various locations, both overseas and in the United States, and attained the rank of sergeant first class. She said she experienced ongoing sexual harassment, and her superiors, far from stopping it, would suggest it was more or less her fault. After that, she said, “You just don’t trust people like you used to.”
When she left the military in 1994, she had difficulty keeping a job. When she did work, she took care of dogs at a canine day care, a veterinarian’s office, and a pound.
“I didn’t want to be around humans,” she said.
According to Feightner-Frederick, her husband says their relationship has improved since she started learning horsemanship. In the past, she would talk loudly and gesticulate when she got excited, neither of which she can do around the horse. With a horse, you have to take baby steps and work as a team, she said.
She wishes more veterans could take advantage of the program, which is free to participants.
The Wild Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Program, based at Lovely’s home, is a tax-exempt nonprofit she founded in 2009. She has been involved with therapeutic horsemanship since her youth, starting as a volunteer when she was in middle school in upstate New York. She maintained a connection to the field as a hobby until she and her husband bought property in West Bridgewater, and Wild Hearts was born.
Lovely has personal experience with post-traumatic stress. About a month before her college graduation, her apartment went up in flames. She was a graphic design major, and the devastating fire destroyed not only her artwork, but all the computer files and carefully made backup discs that contained the images for her portfolio.
One of the worst symptoms she experienced, she said, was emotional detachment — a bleak feeling that she was going through the motions of life almost outside of herself. The feeling scared her, and she was angry all the time.
“I had never experienced anything like that before,” she said.
Being with horses was the only time she felt grounded during that dark time.
Lovely said she went on to graduate from The College of Saint Rose, and then earned an MBA from Babson College. She is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certified instructor, and is a licensed horseback ridng instructor.
Most of Wild Hearts’ work consists of open-ended mental health therapy, for which a fee is charged, but the time-limited class for military personnel and veterans is provided free.
Costs of about $5,000 per participant are covered by fund-raising, donations, and grants; a dinner on April 26 raised $17,500. Wild Hearts has a volunteer board of directors. A psychotherapist and a horsemanship trainer get paid for the time they spend in the sessions.
The program initially had a full class of six for its May-to-July inaugural course, but only two attended consistently. Lovely learned that for some, the commitment or the cost of transportation is a problem.
The two veterans who stuck it out, Feightner-Frederic and Muldoon, received rides from a psychologist at the Vet Center in Warwick, R.I.
Muldoon, an Army medic and Iraq War veteran, declined to speak about the details of his military service.
On the farm, trainer Jennifer Goddard teaches natural horsemanship, a system that makes use of the horses’ natural instincts and behaviors. During one of the final classes, she stood outside the ring, giving direction and encouragement.
“Just like with people, we don’t want to expect [the horse] to do something and fail,” she said. “We want to expect him to succeed, and if he doesn’t, then fix it.”
Lovely is planning some one-day workshops in the fall to make it easier for military personnel and veterans to commit. She has spoken to counselors at the Brockton Vet Center and hopes the program will grow.
There are no mandatory diagnostic criteria, and they try to make the intake process simple, Long said. For details, see www.wildheartstherapeutic.org.