Changing Lives: Cornerstone TRC
When Theresa first met Lita, something stirred inside of her that she never thought she’d experience again. She felt hope, genuine hope, and she’d found it spending time with a gentle 15-year-old horse. For Theresa, who suffers from severe traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, the bond she forged with Lita would be life-changing. It’s a response seen time and again at Operation Saddle Up, a program for injured military service members at Ramona’s Cornerstone Therapeutic Riding Center.
There are more than 30,000 wounded warriors in San Diego — the largest population in the country — and many fail to find meaningful relief through traditional treatment options. They might learn to cope with their physical traumas, from obvious ones like amputated limbs, to invisible permanent damage such as brain injuries. But many, like Theresa, struggle with emotional healing and adapting to an entirely new normal.
Theresa, a naval commander and women’s health and forensic science expert, has served her country for 19 years, including time spent in Afghanistan. In 2011, while touring bases there to identify ways for the U.S. military to prevent sexual assaults, she was brutally sexually assaulted herself, beaten so badly that her head cracked open. Very soon after that, she endured a second TBI when a building she was in was bombed.
“PTSD is horrible,” says Theresa, who learned about Operation Saddle Up through a flier at the Armed Forces YMCA. “It sucks the life out of you. People don’t really understand how hard it has been for me and all of the others who have served. I’ve given last rites and held the hands of young men as they’ve taken their last breath.”
Plagued by isolation and profound despair, Theresa decided to give equine therapy a chance. Her experience at Cornerstone has been so successful that her physician now medically prescribes it as a treatment.
“When I’m whispering to my horse about how much it hurts, she still loves me,” explains Theresa. “She doesn’t judge me. And I know that she understands and she is there for me.”
Judy Beckett, Executive Director of Cornerstone TRC, has a hard time talking about the powerful impact of Operation Saddle Up without choking back tears. Since the program was founded in 2008, she and her colleagues have helped more than 450 men and women. She’s witnessed some transformations that might even be described as miraculous.
“We had one guy come in who couldn’t even speak because of his PTSD,” says Beckett, a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. “By the end of one session, he was smiling and talking and telling jokes. The corpsman from the hospital told me if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t believe it.”
At Cornerstone, which also offers therapeutic programs for children with special needs, wounded warriors learn to care for the horses, and are encouraged to ride on the first day of their six-week session. On the peaceful ten-acre ranch, they build strong bonds with their horses — and often with other service members — while engaging in an activity that makes them feel capable and independent. Carefully trained volunteers and therapists help with the process, which can be raw but also deeply restorative.
In fact, according to Beckett’s statistics, participation can lead to a steep decline in suicidal tendencies and a notable increase in positivity and the ability to communicate. Families and caregivers benefit as well. One veteran’s wife confided to Beckett that the program saved her marriage.
Operation Saddle Up is building on this success with a new pilot program for weekend retreats, starting with a small group of women in December. “We want to give them tools for dealing with stress and the difficulties of civilian life,” says Julie Melia, who works with Beckett. “We’ll have group therapy sessions with a psychologist in addition to private time with the horses.”
But to grow the program — which is offered completely free of charge to service members and receives no government funding — Operation Saddle Up needs donations beyond the annual chili cook-off and private contributions that have so far sustained them. “We want to take it to the national level,” says Beckett. “Horses are so intuitive. They are 100 percent present, 100 percent of the time. They become a safe place. They provide catharsis.” ANNAMARIA STEPHENS
Interested in helping this remarkable program? Please contact Cornerstone Therapeutic Riding Center for more information. (760.788.2872, www.cornerstonetrc.org)
Group Shot: Photo by Mia s. Park