“He’s got a special place in my heart”: local veterans finish equine therapy program

Veterans have seen so much, and they’ve been through so much. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to ask for help when they need it.

This weekend, we celebrate and honor those who fought for our country. Friday, a group of veterans celebrated a win in finishing an equine therapy program.

“Come on, come, come,” Liz Berner, a veteran, said to her horse Stoney, as they were went through an obstacle course in Rathdrum.

It took a little time for Stoney to step onto a wooden box, but he ended up doing it, because his Berner asked him to.

It took them some time to create that bond. That trust is a big thing that veterans and horses need in order to work better together.

“I had some PTSD issues, some military sexual trauma issues and I had a lot of anger issues,” Berner said.

That anger made its way into her home.

“In the military, you’re told what to do and you’re expected to do it and you’re expected to do it right the first time,” she explained.

Going through the military, she didn’t have patience with her 11-year-old daughter.

“I would yell and scream and blow up as we come up my house. I would say almost every other day over something silly and stupid,” she said.

Then, Liz found peace.

She is one of seven veterans in the group going through equine therapy. Twelve weeks after starting, she’s seen a change in herself.

“What would’ve been an explosion in a fight, becomes a discussion now and it’s so much easier to do. it’s all thanks to him,” Berner said referring to Stoney.

Because of Stoney and so many other horses in the program, the veterans are now a little more understanding.

“You see someone that’s closed off, withdrawn, that doesn’t want to talk to anyone. All of a sudden they’re walking around, cracking jokes, having fun with each other and also walking around with these big huge creatures that they’re able to work with,” said Audra Stillions, a readjustment counselor for the VA.

If the veterans close off, the horses will know.

“If internally, they’re anxious, but on the outside they’re smiling, the horses are going to see them as essentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing and want nothing to do with them,” Stillions said. “It really forces them to acknowledge what’s happening within them, or at least with the horse, so they can really get that bonding going.”

Thanks to non-profit Running W Therapeutic Riding Center, the veterans are able to go through the program for free.

“There’s other programs that cost thousands of dollars for one person. They have an amazing outlook at just trying to help and not look at the dollar signs,” Berner said.

Berner said she knew the day would come where the program would end, and she was not looking forward to it.

“I’ve been able to process it a little better. Last week I was in tears because I knew this day was coming,” she said.

Now that this group of veterans finished this program, they’ll continue getting help elsewhere.

But, Liz won’t leave Stoney behind.

“I’ll continue therapy with my counselor, but I’m also going to be coming out here and see this boy, because he’s got a special place in my heart,” she said.

The program is held a few times a year. When new veterans are introduced to the program, they go through three phases. First, they talk about emotions. The second phase, they work on the aspect of trust and what is needed for that.

“A lot of veterans come out of service and there’s this aspect of trust that may be lost or maybe not there anymore because of their experiences,” Stillions explained, adding that the last phase of the program is to build the relationships.

To learn more about the Running W Therapeutic Riding Center, click here.