Osceola County Commissioners on Monday approved building a national equestrian therapy center for injured combat veterans at Chisholm Park. The center, about 15 minutes from Medical City, will allow College of Medicine experts to conduct scientific research on how such therapy helps physically and mentally disabled vets.

Commissioners made the decision after hearing from three combat veterans who have been helped by Horses and Heroes, a therapy program created through a partnership between the medical school and Heavenly Hoofs, a nationally accredited equine-assisted therapy program in Osceola County.

Seventeen-year Navy veteran Dave Vernaza, who was injured by shrapnel in Iraq, described how working with his horse, Jake, “allows me to move forward with my life and see things in a positive aspect.” Vernaza suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and said learning to ride and bond with a horse helps veterans “rediscover our brains. We’re coming back home every day…UCF and Heavenly Hoofs are doing for us what no one else can do.”

Dr. Manette Monroe, a lifelong horsewoman who is assistant dean of students at the College of Medicine and also an assistant professor of pathology, has been leading efforts to get the national equestrian therapy center in Osceola. Because equestrian therapy is relatively new, the medical school wants to conduct scientific research on why it works and recommend best practices. The Orlando VA Medical Center, the college’s neighbor in Medical City, will be treating injured veterans from all over the country when it opens, and Dr. Monroe said area vet organizations are already working to provide shuttle transportation from the VA hospital to Chisholm Park. Supporters want such a center to also research how equestrian therapy helps non-vets, including patients with multiple sclerosis and children with autism or terminal illnesses.

Heavenly Hoofs currently does therapy for veterans and disabled children at space provided by the county at Osceola Heritage Park. But because the space is not covered, therapy must discontinue in the summer because of hot, rainy weather. Monday, Osceola commissioners agreed to build a covered, lit arena, a barn with 20 stalls, parking and meeting areas at Chisholm Park for the equestrian therapy center and to designate 40 acres of property for the facility. As County Commission Chairman Frank Attkisson said to the veterans during the vote, “I hope our community always has a place for heroes like you.” The center’s facilities and horse trails will also be open to the public.  Supporters hope to break ground for the new facility in May and have it completed by October. Once open, Heavenly Hoofs hopes to serve up to 80 veterans per therapy session and have four sessions a year.

Horses are excellent therapy partners for veterans because the creatures are so sensitive to nonverbal communication, Dr. Monroe said. This trait and their unconditional love help veterans learn to better manage their own anxiety and reactions to stress. After the commission vote, Dr. Monroe and Heavenly Hoofs leader Thomasa Sanchez hugged veterans, disabled children who participate in equestrian therapy, and other supporters outside the county commission chambers. The two remarked that a year ago, before equestrian therapy, the veterans were too isolated and reserved to testify before commissioners. But on Monday, the veterans spoke openly and passionately about how the therapy had changed their lives.

“I am so humbled and excited about this opportunity,” Dr. Monroe said. “I can’t wait to get started.”