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Soldiers, Airmen heal on horseback

Rainier Therapeutic Riding builds confidence, happiness

Soldiers and airmen from Joint Base Lewis-McChord work through PTSD and other injuries at Rainier Therapeutic Riding in Yelm. Courtesy photo

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I've often said there's nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse." - Ronald Reagan

Late U.S. President Ronald Reagan was really on to something about humans and horses. There's something really special about the strong bond that people form with horses.

For some, however, a relationship with a horse goes beyond just a bond: it can be a healing salve and even a lifesaver.

It has long been known that horses are extra perceptive to the human emotional condition: they understand when someone is angry, sad or frightened. It's with this innate sense of empathy and soul-affirming gaze that these extraordinary creatures touch the hearts and spirits of those who are hurting either physically, mentally or emotionally - and sometimes all three.

Rainier Therapeutic Riding (RTR) in Yelm understands the connection between horses and humans. The nonprofit organization has provided therapeutic horsemanship services to wounded active-duty and veteran servicemembers for the last several years. It uses horses to facilitate physical and emotional healing. The highly lauded program helps approximately 70 soldiers per week. Classes and programs are offered at no cost to soldiers, and they are welcome to remain in the program as long as they wish. Most classes last eight weeks and are geared toward group lessons with four to eight participants. Private lessons are available as well.

Classes for new riders start in January.

Organization co-founder Bob Woelk has seen firsthand the beauty and magic of horses' connections to participants and is eager to welcome families and new riders into the fold. He, along with fellow co-founder and wife Debbie Fisher and the rest of the team at RTR, is thrilled to be able to share these experiences with even more people.

"Horses are super perceptive of the mental, social and spiritual parts of people; they have a way of seeing into the soul and seeing where people are struggling," Woelk said. "Horses are always 100 percent on - nobody can fool them."

By learning skills from highly-trained professionals about how to move, maneuver and instruct the horse, something special happens: The horse sees its rider as someone who is savvy and worthy of their respect, leadership and friendship. It's this kind of connection that builds confidence and helps riders feel good about themselves in a safe and gentle environment, something that is critical for servicemembers or veterans who have been struggling.

According to Woelk, a good percentage of riding participants struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some have traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other physical injuries. Others who have come to the program have struggled with suicidal thoughts. Whether a soldier has one of these issues or a combination, the horses help. And while the team at RTR gets a general overview from medical personnel about the riders they train, there's not a lot of a back story. The organization primarily focuses on helping riders connect with horses. It's that partnership that really matters.

"A horse is a very safe creature to them," Woelk explained. "They don't have a barrier set up for the animal; they are welcome in their circle. Often they view the horse as somebody that sees them, knows them and works with them. There's a healthy dose of respect as the horse is an intelligent animal to have as a friend."

Others attest to Woelk's statements and have seen the significant healing powers of these partnerships and friendships. The Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a unit devoted to providing outstanding medical care, support, advocacy and leadership to wounded, ill or injured soldiers and their families, has seen the benefits in the soldiers referred to the program.

"We are just amazed at the spirit and dedication of the volunteers who make equine therapy such an impactful program for our soldiers," said Erin Carpenter, WTB recreation therapist.

"Building relationships with horses can be very beneficial for soldiers, especially since horses live in the present and reflect people's immediate emotions.  For many, the interactions with their horse not only helps them process emotional trauma, but also gives them an opportunity to get well physically by working on core strength, balance and fine and gross motor skills."

To learn more about Rainier Therapeutic Riding's services, classes, program application processes, costs and information for the family program, visit

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