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Equine therapy helps veterans with long-term disabilities

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.

Equine therapy helps veterans with long-term disabilitiesSouza 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.”

Read more on this horse therapy story by Brian MacQuarrie at The Boston Globe

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