When: 2-4 p.m. today
Where: Eagles Rest Ranch 690 Eagle Cliff Drive, Flintstone, Ga.
What: Open house for veterans and family, presentations in horse therapy
Contact: Ginger Brown at 423-421-3205, visit the website at www.spirithorseeaglesrestranch.com
FLINTSTONE, Ga. - On a quiet afternoon at the Eagle's Rest Ranch, horses wander in and out of Greg Kersten's presentation, but that's the point.
The animals act and react as the crowd of 18 trainees hears Kersten's instruction on using horses in therapy for people.
Daniel Shadowens, an Iraq war veteran, listens intently. He has worked with special-needs children in horse therapy and is learning from Kersten how to apply these techniques with other veterans.
"That's a big thing for clients to understand, they are more OK than they realize," Kersten says. "Sometimes it's our job to let them know that."
The group spent three days last week learning Kersten's Equine Assisted Philosophy, a treatment method he has used with the developmentally disabled, troubled teens and combat veterans. Today the ranch hosts a two-hour open house for veterans, their families and area therapists to learn more about this experimental approach to therapy.
Ginger Brown heads the ranch program, titled Spirit Horses for Heroes. Today's open house is a starting point, she hopes, for "co-facilitation" between veterans interested in working with horses and therapists who want to try different methods with clients.
Kersten served six years in the U.S. Army, most of that time with military police as a dog handler. He left the service and later went to work with troubled youth in Washington, D.C. To make some extra cash and get back outdoors, he worked with neglected horses at a local ranch in his spare time.
While there, he saw connections between the children's need for attention and the horses' same need and began taking the children to the ranch.
It wasn't long before he saw amazing results in the teens' behavior. The boys became enthralled with the horses and began acting out less, listening to their leaders more and gaining more focus.
Shortly after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Kersten saw a need in returning veterans with combat trauma for the kind of therapy horses could offer and contacted Army officials. Starting in April 2009, he began working with combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., using horses for therapy at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Kersten now lives in Nevada and travels the United States training others in his techniques.
The class last week brought in therapists from as far away as Florida and Indiana.
Michael-Renee Godfrey is a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and spent a tour in Afghanistan as a hospital nurse. She now works as a therapist and serves as a mental health nurse during her military duty.
The Marietta, Ga., resident said horses offer clients a less stressful way to communicate their problems.
"If we get stuck on the sofa and we're not moving forward, we can go out to the arena with a horse," she said. "They can depersonalize it a little and not have to look in my face and say something shameful."
Horses have a calming effect, Godfrey said, and the immediate feedback the animal provides allows clients to see how their behavior affects others, then apply that to their personal lives.
At the Eagle's Rest Ranch, Kersten told attendees that the simplest tasks with the animals can be all a client needs. Just putting a halter on a horse in the pasture and leading the animal around can give a sense of cooperation.
Shadowens served two combat tours in Iraq. Near the end of his last deployment an improvised explosive device killed everyone else in his vehicle. He walked away without a scratch.
"It's hard for civilians to understand the sacrifice and what goes on down-range," he said.
The veteran is studying for a graduate degree in special education from Walden University and has worked at the ranch for two years.
He said he hopes that fellow veterans explore animal-assisted therapies now that there are trained therapists and opportunities for others to participate.