For years, horses have been used in a variety of capacities to help people who have experienced trauma, said Elizabeth Tate, chief operating officer of Platoon 22, a Frederick-based charity geared toward raising awareness in the hopes of decreasing the numbers of death by suicide among active duty and retired military and first responders. Equines’ natural intuition enables them to read and respond to energy brought forth by potential human companions; in order to build a relationship, trust must be gained and such a process—through which proverbial walls are chiseled away—can be invaluable.
“Horses make you honest; they know you even if you don’t know you,” said Tate. “They feel whatever you’re going through.”
Platoon 22, which got its name from the government statistic that 22 veterans who are within 120 days separation from the military die by suicide each day, was selected as the donation recipient of Adamstown-based Loch Moy Farm’s Fifth Annual December Donation Derby, held Dec. 1 and 2.
Following the completion of the competition—which attracted 220 riders across a wide range of levels and featured elaborate and spirited holiday-themed costumes—Loch Moy owner Carolyn Mackintosh presented Platoon 22 with $3,876.82 toward the organization’s unique Horse Experience. Since its inception, the annual Donation Derby has raised more than $9,000 for five different charities.
“People relate to and trust horses,” Mackintosh said. “This is something people can try instead of going through (traditional) therapy. When (Tate) told me about the program and what she does, I just thought, ‘Wow, this is great. How can I help?’”
Horses can help break the cycle of a trauma, Tate said. During each potentially life-altering weekend retreat, which Tate hosts at her Paradise Stables in Mt. Airy and are free to attendees thanks to sponsors and donations, six veterans or first responders engage in hands-on horse sessions along with other interactive and meditative activities that can help them “feel again,” Tate said. The program also promotes positive relationship building and regaining the ability to open up to and trust those in their lives.
“It is the most rewarding moment for all of us who are facilitators to watch someone ‘get it,’” Tate said. “To watch them actually change before your eyes and become lighter and able to laugh and be able to cry and be able to feel again, to let down that wall. In all the professional things I’ve done in my life, this is definitely the most rewarding.”
According to the most recently published U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs National Suicide Data Report, more than 6,000 military veterans died by suicide each year, from 2008 to 2016. The 18 to 34 age group saw a huge increase in incidents between 2015-16, when the rate jumped from 40.4 per 100,000 population to 45. But in 2016 veterans aged 55 and older accounted for the majority of instances—58.1 percent of suicides.
Many of the people Platoon 22 has worked with—and plans for more widespread outreach are on the horizon—are numb, Tate said. They built unbreakable bonds with their comrades in the foxhole, but when they try and reintegrate back into society and their old lives, there’s no foxhole protection. Learning to trust people again can seem impossible, said Tate, who is a therapist by trade and watched her own father struggle after serving during World War II.
“There’s something called moral injury,” Tate said. “People are doing things in the military that they’ve been taught in church or in school or by their families to never do. Then they come back and have moral pain.”
Given this population’s unique circumstances, they are less receptive to traditional therapy, Tate said. They need hands-on alternatives and that is exactly what they get with the Horse Experience.
“I have this mule and she’s one of the most intuitive animals I’ve ever come across in my life,” Tate said. “If I have a veteran with a lot of built-up stuff, and that person is trying to approach her, she won’t let them approach. She’ll coyly look at them and won’t allow them to have access to her. But the moment they start relieving their stress, she’ll come right over and stand next to them. She’ll just wait until they start purging (their problems).”
Note: Loch Moy Farm, one of Maryland’s premier equestrian facilities, hosts The Maryland Horse Trials, which features seven United States Eventing Association events. To support local non-profits and the community, Loch Moy Farm selects local organizations to volunteer to help with parking at larger events, where they can promote their cause and receive donations from participants and spectators.