For a few hours every other week, Iraq War veterans Ryan Mullins and Greg Miller spend time at Wytheville’s Copper Crest Farm, where they work with and ride some of the farm’s many horses.
The veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which occurs when a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The former soldiers say that spending time with gentle horses helps clear their minds as they focus on the animals.
“I get to let my guard down,” Mullins said. “Working with the horses is something I call tunnel vision effect; I can do it with my service dog and a rifle, too. It’s another tool to alleviate stress and anxiety and depression. While there, I’m focused on the horse and taking instruction from Pam (Pam Umberger owns the farm). Everything else that is going on has a tendency to go away. It’s so new and we are so eager to learn about the horses; that is what we are focused on.”
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Mullins is originally from West Virginia, but now lives in Marion. He said that in addition to riding the horses, he and his fellow veterans go into the pens to catch the horses, then brush them, saddle them up and put on their bridles.
“We walk them around the arena to warm them up, and that gives us a chance to test the horse, to see if they are stubborn or not.”
Army vet Mullins has reason to want to clear his mind. While serving in Iraq, he was shot four times during an ambush.
“It was a war time drive-by, you might say,” he explained. “Six or seven of us were hit, and one died.”
Umberger said her therapy program was created for soldiers like Mullins. The veteran’s program grew out of her overall riding therapy program, which she started in 1980.
“We really started focusing on veterans for probably the last six years,” she said. “You know how you keep hearing about things, and it keeps bouncing up in your life? It was like everywhere we turned, we were hearing a lot about veterans’ needs. We were reading more about the success of veterans in other riding programs.”
Umberger said that in addition to having the veterans brush, lead and ride the horses, she leads them through various activities like obstacle courses and mounted exercises like having them stand in the stirrups and touching their toes.
“It’s good for their balance and strengthens their riding abilities,” she said.
The Copper Crest Riding Therapy Program also works with children and adults with mental and physical challenges.
“In terms of physical challenges, the horseback riding improves muscle tone, it improves agility, it helps with balance,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “For those with intellectual or mental challenges, the horseback riding improves spatial judgment, sense of direction, and problem solving. For those with emotional challenges, riding horses gives people a sense of power, builds confidence, improves self-esteem, and it is a catalyst for socialization. Everybody at the barn is here because they like and are interested in horses, so people can come from totally different backgrounds … but they all have the common interest of horses, so it really does promote socialization.”
Umberger said that people facing such challenges are often a bit isolated so that when they get involved with a horse, they not only get the benefit of being with the animal, they benefit from being around other people who like horses, too.
Mullin’s friend and fellow Army veteran Greg Miller also enjoys his time with the horses.
“It gives me something to look forward to,” he said. “I haven’t found a hobby I like; now I do. I’m there in the moment, and I really don’t think about anything else.”
Miller spent more than two year in Iraq during two assignments. During that time, he fought in active combat.
He said he will recommend the riding therapy to other veterans because it has helped him, “and I’m sure it can help someone else.”
To participate in any of the therapy programs at Copper Crest, contact Umberger. There is usually a small fee of about $15 an hour, but donated money and fundraiser money can help pay for those who do not have the money.
Copper Crest Farm is located at 987 Rose Hill Road, Wytheville. For more information or to contact Umberger, call 276-228-5817.
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 573, or email firstname.lastname@example.org