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Calming horses comfort Ohio veterans, their families and relatives of those lost in war

U.S. Army veteran Michael Kuhn kisses his favorite horse Teddy after working with him in the arena at Solid Rock Therapeutic Riding Center in Lake Township. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)

UNIONTOWN, Ohio — For an entire year, Michael Kuhn visited the horses. Always alone, on Sundays.

 Kuhn, an 82nd Airborne Iraq veteran, started out slowly, by feeding the horses, by being close to them. 

"I would come up here and bring 30 pounds of apples every Sunday, cut them up and walk around and feed all the horses," said Kuhn, 30, who now acknowledges he suffered from the after-effects of war — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — for years after he finished his enlistment in 2005. 

Then, something happened. 

"I finally realized that I feel happy," he said. "Horses are always cool, calm and collected. . They need our help as much as we need theirs." 

It was a more than a year ago that Kuhn's mother, Susan O'Connor — a mother of four children who have all served in the military with a combined six overseas deployments — began encouraging him to visit Solid Rock Therapeutic Riding Center in Lake Township. 

The nonprofit center, open for only the past three years, offers free riding services to veterans and their families. 

Kuhn and several Gold Star family members — relatives of those who have died overseas — are part of a military fraternity that works with horses at Solid Rock as part of their recovery from war or the loss of a loved one. 

"We believe our veterans and their families have already paid the ultimate price," said Nicki VonGunten, a founder of Solid Rock and the center's executive director. "We have a policy: If a soldier is in crisis, I don't care if it is 3 o'clock in the morning," they can use the facility for as long as they need "if that's what it takes to save a life." 

Kathy and Frank Patron, parents of Marine Sgt. Daniel J. Patron, 26, who was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, 2011, began spending time at the center in August, around the second anniversary of their son's death. 

Kathy Patron, 55, a speech teacher at Perry High, spends time at the farm every week. She grooms a rescued horse named after her son, Danny Boy. 

"I am channeling my son Danny," she said of her time at the riding center. "There is something very spiritual about spending time with a horse. I look into his eyes and he is so soulful. His temperament is so like my son." 

Since the death of her son, she said, she believes that when a door opens, she and her family must see what is on the other side. 

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