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Soldiers & Saddles: How Equine Therapy is Helping Veterans Work Through Mental Health Struggles
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Shamrock Reigns
Veteran Jim Buszka and Gus at Shamrock Reins

PIPERSVILLE, PA - They’re helping veterans and first-responders take the reins.

"I questioned it at first," says Veteran Jim Buszka, "You know, because I’ve been through so many different therapies and then everything just came back anyway. So to find something that really relaxes you and brings you to a place of’s amazing really. It really is."

Here at Shamrock Reins in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, equine therapy is a tool for navigating civilian life.

"Mostly, they’re dealing with trauma, PTSD, a lot of the vets also have traumatic brain injuries, a lot of anger, anxiety, depression," explains Licensed Professional Counselor at Shamrock Reins, Dorothy Kelly, "The horse is very sensitive to what they’re feeling. So the horse is going to be that elephant in the room that will show them what they’re feeling because a lot of time, they don’t know. They’ve been spending so much time burying it that they don’t know. So when the horse is resisting something, or pushing the participant or trying to get away from them, then it’s a great opportunity to find out why this is happening and to help the veteran see how the horse is acting this out for them."

257 Veterans died by suicide in Pennsylvania in 2017. And while the Veterans Administration says 22 Veterans die by suicide every day in the U.S., here on the 23-acre Bucks County barn farm, they have documented mental health interventions...

We actually have what we consider to be 20 documented suicide saves. So that means that the veterans who came in, and there’s been a couple of first responders, a couple EMTs, police officers, where they have thoughts of suicide. Some may actually have an exact plan or they just think about it every day. We often will get, I just don't want to think about not being here everyday. Like they actually will write those words or say those words," Janet Brennan tells PBS39 News Tonight Reporter, K.C. Lopez, "So if they come right out and tell me, we immediately get them with a horse and we also tie in with all the other plans that would be necessary; either with the VA, or through another therapist. We get them very connected at that moment. We contact another family member that perhaps didn’t know so that they’re alerted."

Janet Brennan is the non-profit’s founder, president and executive director. She is also the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. Through equine therapy, servicemen like Jim Buszka interact with horses like Gus. Both participants and therapists call the animals mirrors; reflecting hidden, internal battles.

"Even though you’re smiling, who knows what's going on inside. They pick up what’s going on inside. And so when you see what you’re feeling in the horse it gives you--it makes it a little more cognitive where you know what’s going on with yourself," reveals Buszka, "He knows when I’m uneasy, like now. He knows when I’m a little uneasy, when things are in my mind and stuff like that. And he kind of does this. He kind of tries to separate me from what he thinks is causing the problem. Like right now he’s trying to take me away from you guys because...exactly, he’s protecting me. I’m his person."

Buszka is a U.S. Navy Veteran who served in Desert Storm and also spent time aboard the USS Iowa where an explosion claimed the lives of killed 47 sailors. Buszka volunteered to help with the fire and carry the bodies of his fallen comrades off the ship.

"You know, something like that sticks with you for a while so it kind of never goes away," he says, "So when he knows that’s kind of on my mind, or coming up, he gets a little protective. I wasn’t sleeping, I had nightmares, flashbacks, the whole PTSD gambit...I went to the VA, got some treatment and stuff but this here has probably been the best therapy other than maybe seeing my guys once a year. This is the best therapy."

By the end of our conversation. Gus deemed me to no longer be a threat to Buszka...the space between us, open. It was a similar experience with James Haitsch and his horse, Paddy. For the 22 year Navy and Army Veteran, when the conversation feels uneasy for Haitsch, its apparent in Paddy.

"As you drive on the Schuylkill Expressway or certain highways, on the interstates, there’s like boxes and whatever and dead animals and it would just heighten your alert and in Iraq they would hide bombs in dead dogs and stuff like that that or boxes," Haitsch tells Lopez, "So you were like paranoid driving on the road for an IED. In a restaurant I like to be seated with my back to the wall and I can see the exits and see the people coming in and what not. After I see the horses, this type of behavior decreases so I feel more at ease and not as hyper aroused or super vigilant. And actually I sleep best the night after I come here so tonight I’ll be sleeping good!"

Since being founded in 2014, over 500 veterans and first-responders have found help here. 90 percent of them are members of the military; both active and retired.

"Before and after every session, we have all of the veterans and participants complete what we call a self-assessment form. So, we’re asking them about their insomnia, their nightmares, their flashbacks," explains Brennan, "Then we have them rate on a scale of zero to ten their anxiety level, their vigilance, their irritability, their fatigue, their social detachment , their sadness, their pain. And then they’ll rate that again after their sessions. 100% of everyone will have up to a 40% decrease after one session. After eight sessions, up to 90%."

They come to heal and in the process, create unique bonds...

"There are sometimes where we are able to introduce people to some horses and see who they connect with," explains Kelly, "Who the horse is picking and who they connect with and that always is interesting. There’s a horse here That gets very anxious and she will bite herself when she gets anxious and I’ve had participants who are self-harmers so they connect to that and so there can be that healing and connection there."

You can find more information on Shamrock Reins' website. The staff here says it’s their time to serve those who have served the country.

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