EAU CLAIRE — With the help of a $25,000 grant from the state and a herd of very special horses, a team of Eau Claire therapists are hoping to help incarcerated veterans heal.
Starting this year, a team of therapists from Trinity Equestrian Center in Eau Claire will transport two horses to the Stanley Correctional Institution each week to work with veterans at the prison facility.
The new program has been dubbed “Forgotten Veterans,” said Toni Mattson, director of programs, equine specialist and co-owner of Trinity Equestrian Center.
Mattson believes the horses will encourage veterans to open up about their struggles with PTSD, trauma and mental health.
In fact, she’s seen it happen consistently over the last 11 years.
Trinity has a long history of matching horses, therapists and veterans. The center has run many horse therapy programs since its 2002 founding, including several veteran-focused programs since 2009.
But this is the first time Trinity will try to help veterans who are imprisoned.
One day a week, Trinity therapists and horses will build relationships with the roughly 100 veterans at the Stanley prison, a state-run facility for men in eastern Chippewa County.
It’s the first equine therapy the prison has ever had, said the prison’s ADA coordinator, Brandon Drost.
“Our goal is to serve those that are highest-priority first,” Mattson said. “Depending on what they’re struggling with and how severe it is, those will be the people we want to work with right away.”
There were 18 million veterans in the U.S. in 2018. The percentage of those veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder vary: 12% of Gulf War Veterans have PTSD in any given year, and 30% of Vietnam War veterans have had PTSD during their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Horses are key to the equation, but there’s no riding involved, Mattson said: Everyone’s legs will stay firmly planted on the ground during the therapy session.
In their first session, the horses will establish trust with the veterans. (A licensed therapist and an equine specialist will also be present.)
“You can’t just go in and demand someone trusts you,” Mattson said. “You have to earn it. The horses are a great conduit for that, because they don’t judge people. They live in the moment, totally non-judgemental, and a veteran can pick up on that very quickly. They relax, let their guard down in the presence of a horse.”
After the veterans are comfortable in the horses’ presence — without a halter, lead rope or saddle — Trinity therapists will ask the veterans to perform different tasks with the horses.
In one exercise, Mattson will ask the veteran to put a halter and lead rope on a horse, then take them off. The veteran will then try to get the horse to follow them on their own.
“Imagine you have a 1,200-pound animal that’s free to follow you or not ... but he chooses to follow you and for you be his leader,” Mattson said. “Almost all the vets we work with have tremendous challenges with relationships. They now have a 1,200-pound friend.”
That’s the first step. Over the next eight weeks, veterans will get to know the horse they pair up with. Their focus: To help veterans process and talk about trauma, whether that includes PTSD, anxiety, depression or other struggles.
Mattson says the therapists and horses want to help veterans envision a happier, more solid future for themselves.
“If you put them in an arena with a horse standing next to them, the horses are so incredibly intuitive that they’ll pick up on that person’s emotional state and help them tell their story,” she said. “It’s a moving experience for us, but for them, it’s life-changing.”
Years in the making
Mattson and Drost, a veteran who had worked with horses at Trinity for years before, began discussing starting an equine therapy program for incarcerated vets around 2016.
Before Mattson wrote the state grant for Forgotten Veterans, she decided to try a test run at the Stanley prison.
In late summer 2020, Mattson and other Trinity therapists brought two horses to the prison and gave inmates and staff a demonstration.
“The warden was just blown away and the inmates were moved beyond words,” Mattson remembered.
There were “a lot of smiles, laughs, questions about horses, how many veterans they have helped and how Trinity got started with this program,” Drost said in an email.
She praised the veterans’ respect for the Trinity horses: “They were the most friendly, respectful, polite people I have encountered. They were so appreciative. Many were in tears.”
In December the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs awarded Trinity a $25,000 grant to fund the project for a year.
The Forgotten Veterans program will begin sometime this year. Because the horses and veterans work together outdoors, weather will likely dictate when they can begin, Mattson said.
Drost added: “We are very interested in the potential outcome this service can have with our veterans.”
In her grant application to the WDVA, Mattson called the new program “Forgotten Veterans.”
“That’s how they see themselves,” Mattson said. “They’ve served their country; they absolutely did something wrong, but once they are incarcerated, they feel very definitely that they are just forgotten, period. That really moved me.”