COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — During 25 years in the U.S. Army, Glen Cooper witnessed slaughter on a mass scale and lived with unrelenting tension in combat zones from Somalia to Iraq.
“When you have to take your friends in a body bag and load them onto and off a truck, that is hard,” said Cooper, 50, who has post-traumatic stress disorder.
The condition makes him nervous, touchy and explosive. It rocked his relationships with family and friends and made even a drive to the grocery store a nerve-grinding endeavor.
“I would walk into the house and my kid’s toy would be on the floor, and I would get enraged,” he recalled.
Last August, Cooper entered Warrior Wellness, an equine-assisted therapy program at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Equestrian Center.
The PTSD hasn’t disappeared, but caring for horses and riding and taking part in therapeutic exercises with the animals has given him more control and helped to calm the anxiety that dominated his life for years.
Billy Jack Barrett has been the stable’s manager since 1980 and launched Warrior Wellness in 2009.
“I have known for years that some people’s sanctuary is on the back of a horse,” said Barrett, a broad-shouldered 70-year-old Texas native in a pale gray Stetson.
He got the idea for Warrior Wellness after meeting the commander of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson. The officer told him that his staff of 17 was under pressure, dealing with tension and long hours as they helped their patients. Barrett told him to bring the staffers out for a trail ride.
The unit didn’t have money to pay, so Barrett told them to “come on out, you can go check fences” on the 950-acre ranch.
“I have to check and maintain the fences, so I thought, well, shoot, they can volunteer and help, and that’s what they did.”
After that first ride, they brought soldiers who had been injured or were ill and who were trying to shake off the stress of combat.
Since that time, hundreds of soldiers and veterans have received help for PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other conditions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is linked with anger and hyper-alertness, said Jeanne Springer, 59, an equine specialist at the academy’s Equestrian Center.
People with PTSD “tend to isolate because they have learned to numb their emotions,” Springer said. “The horses help them relax.”
There is no cost to those receiving treatment, or to taxpayers. The program is self-funded, charging for boarding, riding lessons and other services.
The Warrior Wellness program has had a partnership with the Temple Grandin Equine Center at Colorado State University the past two years.
CSU research is tested and used in the program at the Air Force Academy.
“We will do the research and then advise on practices, and the academy will implement them,” said Adam Daurio, director of administration for the CSU Equine Center.
“The temperament of the horse is absolutely a treatment tool in these therapies,” he added.
There are plans in the works for the academy to expand the program, increasing the number of people who get help through equine therapy.
Horses are sensitive to their environment and the humans they interact with, said Diane Kennedy, 63, a volunteer therapist with the program who has practiced equine-assisted therapy since 2000.
Dealing with the animals helps someone who is experiencing anxiety, anger and other symptoms to calm down, explained David Austin, 43, an Army veteran who served in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They teach patience, because if you try to force a horse into something, you will make it more afraid. It is hard to calm down, but horses feel what you feel. … You have to learn to calm down,” Austin said.
He now works full time for Warrior Wellness, helping other veterans and working at the stables, where he is an apprentice farrier.
Those who complete the therapy often make visiting the facility part of their routine. They muck out stalls, feed and water animals, interact with staff and fix fences.
“You know what is great?” Barrett asked a visitor. “Seeing that guy (Austin) smile. When he first came here, he didn’t even talk.”