Horses Guide Disabled Vets From Combat to Calm

October 9, 2017
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Manny Natal, a disabled U.S. Marine veteran, brushes Tristan during a one-on-one session at the Serenity Stables, From to Calm program on Tuesday.

By Jay Cook |

MIDDLETOWN – Well off the beaten path, far away from the raucous bustling of city streets, is a unique, rural getaway designed to free the mind for those who need it most.

Amid the sounds of hay bales being munched on and bellowing neighs is Serenity Stables, From Combat to Calm, a Middletown horse farm-turned equine therapy program aimed at helping veterans suffering from disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Founded by Rene Stone in 2015, the program provides a retreat for veterans living in Veterans Affairs hospitals and recovery communities; they spend a day with horses as a means to help cope with difficult memories.

Rusty Muller, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran from the East Orange VA Hospital, meets     Davis for the first time at Serenity Stables for equine therapy.

Based around one-on-one, personal interactions with therapeutic horses, Stone said an afternoon on the farm provides veterans with an additional method of therapy beyond the usual occupational therapy they are receiving. She said it’s an unmatched experience.

“The horses react to the emotion,” Stone said. “They become the mirror of what’s going on inside that person.”

About a half dozen veterans from the spinal cord units in New Jersey’s East Orange VA Hospital and the James J. Parker VA Hospital in the Bronx, traveled to Middletown on Oct. 3 for a visit to Serenity Stables.

First off the bus was first-time visitor Rusty Muller, a U.S. Air Force veteran from the East Orange hospital. After making his way to the stable, he moved from stall to stall, spending a few silent moments with each of the half dozen horses.

Davis, a black horse with a white blaze–a thick stripe down the middle of his head – ruffled Muller’s hair and glasses. The two shared a connection, only interrupted by Muller’s laugh as Davis inched closer and closer.

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And remarkably, this program wouldn’t have been possible without a chance encounter during a mid-winter’s hike through the woods. After embarking on an uncharacteristically early run with her husband through Hartshorne Woods, Stone came across Mark Otto, a Red Bank resident and U.S. Marine Corps veter- an. At the time in early January, Otto was in the midst of completing a 1,000- mile ruck march – a military- influenced practice using large, weighted backpacks – in memory of a close friend who had committed suicide after suffering from PTSD.

It couldn’t have been more of a coincidence. Stone was looking for veterans who could benefit from the farm, and Otto was transitioning to become vice president of the United War Veterans Council, a New York-based veteran advocacy organization. It’s a position he currently holds.

United War Veterans Council vice president and U.S. Marine veteran Mark Otto, left, and Rene Stone, founder of Serenity Stables, From Combat to Calm pose with therapy horse Sampson.

“I basically told her, ‘Boy did you meet the right guy,’ ” Otto said with a laugh.

From then on, the two forged a relationship. Otto began connecting Serenity Stables with other regional and national veteran service organizations, increasing their reach.

But to see its potential, Otto decided to give equine therapy a try. He ended up being the first veteran to come through the program.

“Fate took its course,” he said.

Otto, 48, served two tours overseas during the Panama Invasion and Desert Storm, which he followed up with a pair of counter-narcotics tours along the U.S./Mexico border.

Otto had suppressed his experiences after his service, but the memories returned twice during traumatic events. The first was after 9/11, when he and his wife were on the final PATH train to stop at the World Trade Center. The other occurrence was during Super Storm Sandy.

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Traditional occupational therapy “got to the root of the problem of what caused PTS for me,” he said. But it wasn’t until Stone’s equine therapy program where he learned how to deal with the triggers, he said.

Being with the horses “is almost like a spiritual connection,” he noted.

The same could be said for Stone, who has experienced the effects of PTSD through-out her life. Her father, a Korean War veteran, suffered from what was then called shell shock.

Horse Sampson and Rene Stone greet Air Force veteran Jesse Phillips as he arrives at Serenity Stables, From Combat to Calm.

Her father attempted suicide multiple times and ended up in VA hospitals as a paraplegic after an incident with Keyport police during a suicide attempt. “I spent my childhood in VA hospitals with these men,” she said. “It’s what really propelled me to want to help disabled veterans.”

 Later in life, Stone struggled with her own bouts of PTSD. She sustained a traumatic brain injury in 1997 when her horse, Tristan, kicked her, fracturing her skull. A year later, she was involved in a fatal car accident where a young boy lost his life.

“It was the catalyst for the real PTSD,” she said, of the accident. “I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t leave my house.”

She worked through regular therapy, but it was her horses that helped her mentally cope and heal.

“It was the only time the tremors, the rattling and the trauma associated with PTSD went away,” Stone said.

As an accredited Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) facility, over 200 veterans have come through Serenity Stables to date to experience the horses in their open pastures.

Some, like Manny Natal – a disabled U.S. Marine Corps veteran and regular visitor to Serenity Stables – had already established a connection with a few of the horses. He had a particular affinity for Tristan and Sampson, and he brushed them throughout the afternoon.

Stone believes that connection serves as a necessary release.

“This brings you into the present moment,” she said, of equine therapy. “You can’t handle (PTSD) unless you forget about the past. And you do when you’re here.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 5-12, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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