The medical school is working with Heavenly Hoofs, an nationally accredited equine-assisted therapy program in Osceola County, to provide therapy to local veterans and is working to expand the program into a national model.

Equestrian therapy is a relatively new way to treat psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and to help rehabilitate veterans with amputations and brain injuries from combat. Because the therapy is so new, the College of Medicine wants to develop a national center to conduct the first scientific research on the topic and to design best practices.

Leading the effort is Dr. Manette Monroe, a lifelong horsewoman who is assistant dean of students at the College of Medicine and also an assistant professor of pathology. In April, she, Heavenly Hoofs and S.A.D.L.E.S. of Umatilla began sessions of Horses and Heroes, an eight-week series of classes and therapy for veterans. They are also working with Osceola County to develop a covered, purpose-built facility near medical city for the therapy. “This facility would be the first in the nation to be built from the ground up in conjunction with a medical school,” Monroe said. Therapy is currently conducted at space provided by the county at Osceola Heritage Park.

On Thursday, Horses and Heroes demonstrated the program to the media. Eight veterans, including men in their 20s and 30s who were injured in Iraq and veterans in their 60s, who served in Vietnam, demonstrated the team- and trust-building therapies they receive with their horses. The veterans have also formed a horse drill team that they hope will perform in future Osceola County equestrian events.

Army veteran Lito Santos enlisted at age 17, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He lost his leg at the hip and suffered traumatic brain injury during a 2005 roadside bombing in Iraq. He was only 19 at the time and his heart stopped several times as he was transferred off the battlefield. Santos is partnered with Seemore, a compact chestnut quarter horse. Horseback riding not only eases Santos’ anxiety, it also helps him improve his core strength and balance. “It’s been a blessing,” he says of his equine-assisted therapy. “The whole time I’m here, I’m at peace.”

Horses are excellent for this type of therapy because they are so sensitive to nonverbal communication, Monroe said. This trait and their unconditional love help veterans learn to better manage their own anxiety and reactions to stress.

Equestrian therapy “takes my mind off the pain,” said Navy veteran Dave Vernaza, who was injured by shrapnel in Iraq. “It allows me to do something that’s enjoyable, that relieves the anxiety. It gives me an opportunity to create a bond with my horse Jake.”