NORFOLK — Feet in the stirrups, hands on the reins, Karen Souza closes her eyes as a quarter horse named Rio carries her to a tranquil, peaceful place she has rarely visited.
Souza spent decades walled off emotionally after being sexually abused as a teenage soldier. She never formed a loving relationship, and she spoke only sparingly. But from that dark, bleak world, she has emerged to find a place of trust, and accomplishment, and the simple joy of working with a large, strong, patient animal.
Souza is one of several female veterans who exhale and relax once a week at the BINA Farm Center, where they learn basic horsemanship and riding skills in a hands-on form of therapy. All of them are dealing with physical or emotional challenges.
But little by little, through grooming a horse or sitting in a saddle, anxiety and doubt are being replaced by laughter and confidence.
On this morning, 30 miles southwest of Boston, the veterans have been asked to shut their eyes and enjoy the slow, coordinated movement of their horses. It’s a simple request, but one that needs more than a little courage from women who often have felt vulnerable and abandoned.
“Every time I come here, this flood of emotions comes over me,” says Souza, 52, who lives in Worcester in transitional housing for female veterans. “I just feel cleansed, and you take that feeling with you. It doesn’t go away.”
As more veterans cope with long-term disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, public awareness about the problems and therapies to treat them has increased. Veterans programs such as the one at BINA Farm have surfaced in Massachusetts and elsewhere in recent years, following a long-held recognition that working with horses has therapeutic benefits for people with special needs.
“I want them to leave with skills and tools they can take out to the world,” says Eileen Polasky, program director at BINA Farm Center, a Natick-based nonprofit, with facilities in Norfolk and Wellesley. “For a lot of people, the horses are a way in.”
The women gain a sense of responsibility that comes from caring for a horse, even for 90 minutes a week. There is a search for the gumption to try something new, perhaps after many years of extreme withdrawal. And there is a sense of growing self-esteem for women who sometimes feel branded as failures.
“There was a time when I wasn’t talking because I didn’t think that anyone would get it,” says Eadyie Davis of Marlborough, a 47-year-old Air Force veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident during her military service. “Horses offer empathy, trust, compassion, and stillness.”
Now, seven sessions into the eight-week program, Davis is talking — a lot. She tests whether visitors know how many bones are in a horse, and how long horses sleep. “Did you know they’re afraid of us?” Davis asks.
Any fear on Davis’s part is not apparent. She pets Creek, helps adjust his bridle and halter, and chirps softly and soothingly to the palomino before nestling into the saddle. As Creek is led around the dirt floor by Pat Sheets, a volunteer from Roslindale, Davis is beaming.
Katy Duffey, an instructor, choreographs the horses and riders from the center of the dirt floor. She’s not strict with the women, but she’s also determined to make the most of their time.
“OK, ladies, on the count of three, you want to come off the wall and reverse direction,” Duffey says.
For these neophytes, this simple maneuver carries a bit of tension. But they manage, and after a few minutes Duffey brings her pupils to a halt. “On the count of three, I want to see a nice, smooth ‘whoa.’ ”
Afterward, Army veteran Mary Stickney credits her draft horse, Hairy Potter, for a successful morning. “Hairy’s pretty mellow. He’ll do pretty much whatever I want him to do,” Stickney says.
“These horses know their job. They know what they’re here for,” Polasky says.
Polasky did not want to begin a veterans program until she could offer the therapy for free. That chance came this year through a grant from the Ahern Family Charitable Foundation in Stoneham. Another, recent grant from the Middlesex Savings Charitable Foundation will allow many more men and women to participate next year.
Souza says the program has been life-altering. Plagued for years by mistrust, she had found even simple conversations difficult. Now, Souza is bubbling with enthusiasm as she runs a currycomb over Rio’s coat.
“She has changed,” says Michele Neumeier, a volunteer from Watertown. “She’s talking, and she’s open.”
Souza, who says she was “scared to death” before her first ride, is embracing the transformation. After mounting a horse in her first session here, Souza burst into cathartic tears of joy.
“I’d always kept my emotions to myself. Growing up, it was no talking, no speaking, no nothing,” Souza says. “My therapist tells me, ‘You’re so much better, so much more positive, more relaxed.’ This is just extremely emotional for me.”
And soothing, as well. After the session, standing among the horse stalls, Davis cocks her head, smiles, and asks, “I like that sound, do you hear it?”
It’s the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves.