Sorting Out Life After War

By Eric Cravey, Managing Editor

Thursday, November 01, 2012-GREEN COVE SPRINGS-The man walks cautiously into the corral while imprints of gunfire and battle and the dreaded possibility of encountering an improvised explosive device run through his mind like a movie that won’t end.

He is greeted by a handler who holds the reins of a sorrel-colored horse that is as equally alert, if not more, than the man.

A therapist is now in the ring and, for the next hour or two, the hyper-vigilant man and the hyper-vigilant horse will be led through a series of exercises aimed at re-assimilating the wounded warrior into life after the battlefield. In horse training language, the man, whose identity is protected due to patient confidentiality, never rides the horse, but leads it through what’s called ground work to build trust with the majestic animal.

‘The fundamental qualities of horses and horse culture have a lot of similarities with the warrior culture,’ said Tracy Hejmanowski, clinical psychologist and program manager of the Deployment Health Center at Naval Hospital Jacksonville. ‘Horses are very powerful, very strong, very capable but they can also be very gentle and very intuitive.’ According to Hejmanowski, both horses and warriors function with a herd mentality. Both are trained to look out for the group, always be ‘on and alert’ and be prepared for


PHOTO COURTESY OF U. S. NAVY A service member walks a horse through a barricade during an equine-assisted therapy session. Horses help service members through such mental health concerns as depression, anxiety, self esteem, post traumatic stress and relationship building. swift action. This act of “always being on” can create communication and relationship problems at home and in other relationships for the sailor or soldier who is no longer in battle but is still in the grips of the trauma of war.

For the past year, Hejmanowski has been holding intense group therapy sessions with about 12 to 15 men and women in partnership with PX Equine Enterprises in Green Cove Springs. She got the idea from a sailor who brought her a magazine article on equine therapy.

Since the U.S. Navy had no funding for this type of therapy, Hejmanowski had to get creative and do some homework. Her search for a training partner connected her with StarrLee Heady, a licensed mental health counselor certified in equineassisted therapy, and owner of PX Equine Enterprises.

Heady uses her training from the international nonprofit called EGALA, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, and its years of research to help military, law enforcement, and first responders overcome whatever trauma they face from their line of work. She has been conducting equine-assisted therapy for 12 years.

“You start where they are,” said Heady who has been donating the use of her stables and her counseling time to Hejmanowski and the warriors. “We allow them to express things the way they want to because some of these folks have had difficulty sharing with people. They can talk to these horses and verbalize things they may not share anywhere else and they know that it won’t go anywhere else.” And after the service member – who attends the therapy sessions on their own time – learns how to open up and talk again, they can take home what they’ve learned and apply it to their families. In the long term, the horse ends up being the teacher for the wounded sailor.

“Veterans are also doing something for the horse,” Hejmanowski said. “They are showing the horse that anxiety can be dangerous. So what they learned watching this horse run and run and sweat and breath is they begin to relate to this. They see that the horse went from a full run, to a trot and then slowed to a walk, took a signal breath and let go of the anxiety.”

In recent months, a horse that had been used in therapy had to be put down for health reasons. Instead of doing ground work with the other PX Equine horses that day, Hejmanowski used the horse’s death as an opportunity to hold a session about grief and loss.

“It was amazing,” she said. “Our veterans really, really enjoy this type of therapy.”

Equine-assisted therapy is just one way the military hopes to help active duty and reservists who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder related to the throes of war. According to a 2008 Rand Corp. study, nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment.

Heady, who owned her first horse when she was four growing up in Montana and Wyoming, also has a personal stake in this type of therapy as her husband is currently a 23-year active duty Navy veteran. She can hardly recall a time when there was not a horse in her family. And now, she says, it’s her time to give even more back to the military, law enforcement and first responder community.

On Saturday, Nov. 24, PX Equine is holding a free open house in partnership with Horses4Heroes, a national nonprofit that works to offer horsemanship and access to horseback riding to military families. Along with a presentation about EGALA therapies, there will be free horse rides, a parade of horse breeds, a lariat demonstration, a farrier horseshoe demonstration and more. For more information on the open house, call (904) 529-7999 or go online at

“The fundamental qualities of horses and horse culture have a lot of similarities with the warrior culture. Horses are very powerful, very strong, very capable but they can also be very gentle and very intuitive.”

–Tracy Hejmanowski clinical psychologist and program manager of the Deployment Health Center at Naval Hospital Jacksonville



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