For 10 years, Bill Knop could not say his son’s name.
Allen Knop was 22 when he died in the Iraq War in 2005, and for years, his father struggled with grief, until he found Operation Horses and Heroes, a nonprofit that uses the healing power of horses to help veterans and their families deal with issues ranging from post traumatic stress to living with prosthetics.
“This program broke me down and brought out my emotions,” Mr. Knop said.
For the last three years, Mr. Knop and his wife Francine have brought the free program to their stables, Hambden Hills Stables in Chardon, holding the most recent event this past weekend. It is one of five Operation Horses and Heroes programs this year and the only one in Ohio.
“It lets me know that I’m not alone. There is a community that supports us,” said one of this weekend’s participants Donna Kasinec, 59, of Avon Lake, who served in the Air Force for 24 years. “I can be heard and understood here.”
Operation Horses and Heroes Co-founder and Vice President Susan Parker explained the equine-assisted program helps veterans reintegrate into everyday life using the healing power of horses.
“They mirror human emotions,” Ms. Parker said. “You think you’re presenting yourself one way, but you’re coming off differently. Horses help people learn what they’re giving out to the world and how to change that perception.”
This weekend, Dr. Michael-Renee Godfrey, a clinical psychologist and certified equine practitioners led the veterans through various activities to address common issues among veterans. In one, four veterans worked together to saddle a horse, with each portraying the left arm, the right arm, the left brain and the right brain. The person playing the right arm could not move until the person playing the left brain said so, promoting teamwork, communication and listening skills.
“A lot of them don’t like working in groups, but you have to work with other people in life,” Dr. Godfrey said. “They also have to learn how to ask for help.”
Dr. Godfrey herself is a 16-year Air Force veteran, during which she served as a flight nurse and was part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. She also works with Dr. Jinny Cash, an equine-assisted learning specialist who spent 30 years in the Army National Guard and Army Reserves.
The veterans also built an obstacle course and led a horse through it, working together to make sure the horse did not run into the obstacles. The course was full of temptations like apples, but the veterans managed to direct the horse through the course.
“The program is designed for veterans,” said Will Greufe, 70, of Claridon who served in the U.S. Navy from 1967-1971. “I recently had a stroke, and it’s reinforcing how I can take care of myself.”
The program, which is free to the veterans, relies on donations and volunteers like Ken Quin, 65, of Hambden. Mr. Quin is a retired member of the Fire Department of New York and was part of the recovery efforts on 9/11. Mr. Quinn said that he has been dealing with PTSD and has gone through counseling, so he could empathize with the veterans.
Cash donations to Operation Horses and Heroes are tax deductible and help pay for hotel and transportation costs for the veterans, as well as the meals that are provided through the weekend.