Matt Sampley walked around the indoor arena at the Intermountain Equestrian Center on Saturday afternoon with Elizabeth, his 13-year-old sorrel mare, sauntering just behind him.
As an audience looked on, Sampley, as he walked, reached back with his hand for her to sniff. If he stopped, she stopped, and he gave her head an affectionate pat. When he resumed his jaunt, she followed.
Then Sampley gently placed a blanket, a saddle and a halter on the horse, put his foot in the stirrup and climbed into the saddle. He rode around the arena a few times, walking, then trotting or riding through a series of poles before coming to a stop in front of his audience.
Sampley’s demonstration was one of two performed during an open house to introduce people to Horses Spirits Healing Inc. Its purpose is to help heal vets who are suffering from psychological trauma and physical disabilities.
“Our goal is to alleviate some of the stresses of life” that military veterans confront,” said Sampley, a veteran himself and board member of the program. “These horses seem to understand us better than we understand ourselves.”
In February, the nonprofit will begin providing equine-assisted activities and therapy at the equestrian center off of Highway 3. The instructors, including Sampley, are all students or graduates of Rocky Mountain College’s equestrian studies program and either have or are working toward being certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Paul Gatzemeier, co-owner of the IEC with his wife, Barb Skelton, said the equestrian center has been developing the new program since 2014, getting all the pieces in place.
“It grew out of the work we’ve been doing here since 1999 with Rocky Mountain College,” he said, after the open house ended. “Their program evolved from just equestrian studies to including a new program in 2005 for therapeutic instruction.”
In the past, the equestrian center also has hosted Special Olympics and Eagle Mount. It was around 2007 that the center learned about the emerging opportunity to work with veterans.
At first, Gatzemeier said, the Veterans Administration viewed equine therapy as more of a recreational activity.
“Now they’re starting to see it as more therapeutic,” he said. “And we’re a member center with PATH International, and they’ve been supporting therapeutic programs for over 40 years.”
The need for equine therapy “is huge,” Gatzemeier said. In Montana alone there are an estimated 100,000 veterans, and 10 percent or more have service-related disabilities.
“In Yellowstone County, being the biggest county, we have a disproportionate share of veterans per capita compared to other places in the state, just because of our size,” he said. “So Billings is the place, this is the right time and this is the right facility.”
Kate Hibbs, a senior at Rocky, who is working on degrees in therapeutic riding and psychology, is one of the two PATH-certified instructors for Horses Spirits Healing Inc. She was on hand Saturday to answer questions about the program, calling it “a very creative and different way to bring veterans back to themselves and everyday life.”
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Hibbs, who has friends and family who have served in the military, said it’s difficult to see some of them come home changed and broken.
“It’s kind of heart-wrenching to sit with them and not be able to put them back together,” Hibbs said. “This is a way to help them work through it.”
Learning how to work with a horse and making an emotional connection with it can help with that healing process. And sometimes the physical process of climbing into a saddle and riding a horse can be invigorating, and even helpful to a vet with a physical disability.
“The gait of a walking horse mimics the pelvic movement of an adult’s walk,” Hibbs said. “So if someone has an issue with walking, it helps prepare their body for walking and it can be really beneficial.”
Veterans in the program will have a range of opportunities, from caring for a horse to riding in the arena, with help from the instructors. The other demonstration on Saturday showed how an instructor would work with a client who is riding a horse.
Jonathan Mitchell rode Dot, a gentle Fjord horse, around the arena with the help of a couple Rocky students and verbal cues from certified instructor and Rocky student Anvia Hampton. Mitchell walked the horse, threaded it through the poles and even trotted a bit.
Gradually, Hampton had the helpers move away from the horse to let Mitchell ride on his own.
“We like to encourage as much independence as possible,” she told the audience.
Sampley, who will also be an instructor in the program, comes to it with an added dimension. He spent 10 years in the Air Force and the Air National Guard, completing two tours in Afghanistan.
He also has dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder. That makes him the perfect person to act as veteran’s liaison on the nonprofit’s board.
He said his longtime relationship with Elizabeth, his horse, has made all the difference in his life.
“On those down days that I have, she knows and she’ll come up and put her head on my shoulder,” Sampley said. “And it just seems to melt all the worries away.”
He worked in a similar military program in Alaska that used equine therapy, and he saw “some amazing things.”
“The results we saw in some of those vets, it was just a complete 180-degree turn-around,” Sampley said.