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Health and Fitness

Finding Freedom

Veterans Find Solace with Horses

With each brushstroke, sunbaked dust sifted off Cecilia into the air. Once Lois Fritz finished brushing, she started a sponge bath to give the animal a nice shine. She paused momentarily to kiss the horse on the head.

Fritz loves all horses, but she adores this one more than any other. The animal saved her life.

At the time she took Cecilia in, Fritz had been an alcoholic with no will to live. Forcing herself to go out every day and take care of the horse was the only way Fritz knew how to keep herself sober. The more time they spent together, the stronger Fritz's sobriety grew, and the more tame Cecilia became.

Fritz, a Navy veteran and the owner of New Freedom Farm, in Buchanan, Virginia, can usually be seen hustling around, keeping the farm running, ensuring everyone and everything, animals included, are taken care of. But, somehow, she always finds time between her chores for the horses.

Horses are her solace. Her way to find a break when she needs one, her way to relax when she's in distress, her calm during a storm.

She's always gravitated toward horses as a way to heal her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and has made it her mission to ensure other veterans find the same healing peace.

Fritz keeps the farm gate open all day each day for her fellow veterans. With her open invitation, vets have a safe place to spend time. They can visit the horses and other veterans to unwind, and can always go to Fritz without feeling uncomfortable. They can relate to each other.

She has faced many of the struggles other service members do: war, death and suicide. She went into a deep depression. The number of deaths piled up until they ultimately triggered her anxiety and PTSD.

Fritz didn't have it easy growing up. Her parents were illiterate, her family relied on welfare and many nights there wasn't any dinner. Joining the Navy was the easy way out. Fritz ran away from the only life she knew, a poor struggling family, an alcoholic father, and her mother's abusive friend.

Getting attached to an all-Marine security unit did not make life any easier. But it did toughen her up. She had to learn to stand on her own feet as life spiraled further out of control.

Her ex-boyfriend shot and killed himself, and sent a recording of it to her. Then her kid brother died. This one-two punch hit Fritz hard. She turned to alcohol to soothe herself and eventually became clinically depressed. Realizing she needed more than a little help to get her back on track, she began to take an interest in animals.

"I think I knew what PTSD felt like and I knew what that was so I just gravitated toward the horse," said Fritz.

She had seen how horses could do wonders for a broken heart, and heal you from inside. Realizing she needed more than a little help to get her back on track, she decided to look for her own horse.

But first she became sober, knowing she wasn't in any state fit to care for another living creature.

The next year, Fritz adopted Cecilia, a wild mustang, who'd never been touched by a human, and gave her a new home. That first adoption eventually turned into New Freedom Farm.

Photo collage on horse therapy

Fritz recently set up a paddock with baby strollers, hula hoops, tarps and tires - obstacles for veterans and other students to face and overcome. Together, a vet and horse could learn to work past certain hiccups in the road. Realizing that they could conquer their fears would be a big achievement for many.

Roger Clites, a retired Navy veteran who watched from the sidelines of the arena as the day went on, had learned these lessons as a child. Growing up on a farm, he spent much of his time with horses. Later, after he joined the military, he missed his favorite animals. Clites remembered how a pet horse had been there for him after he lost a childhood friend when he was young, and how it had healed him from the inside when he was lost. When he lost another close friend as a young adult, he discovered he needed horses again.

Whenever he could, Clites would find a stable near his duty station. Riding and spending time with horses was a refreshing, calming way for him to relax, to break away from the daily stressors and routine life of the military. With the horse, he was free. Without the horse, he didn't always know how to cope. He sometimes had trouble adjusting to military life and didn't know why. Part of the reason was that he hadn't dealt with the deaths of those he lost.

Memories and constant reminders of trauma and multiple deaths from his past would pop up and fester in his mind. Memories of missions like Operation Katrina in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina just sat and resonated. He couldn't get rid of images of the devastated city on fire and nonstop gunfire. He used horses to face and process the long-term trauma.

He decided to get medical help. He thought that's what he had to do, what everyone did when they had a nervous breakdown or couldn't handle ordinary daily tasks. Military doctors would help for bits at a time, but sit-down sessions never fully cured him. Clites needed someone or something else to talk to and confide in.

That's where New Freedom Farm comes in. It's the first place Clites and his wife, who also suffers from severe PTSD, go whenever they have breakdowns or don't know what to do.

"It's someplace we can go anytime if we need it," he said, "or if we just want to relax."

Although Clites doesn't ride anymore, he finds solace around the animals in the pastures and by helping out on the farm.

Photo collage on horse therapy

Treating PTSD

Animals have long been known to help improve the health of humans. They can have a relaxing effect, facilitate conversation, increase self-esteem, improve social skills, and reduce anxiety.

According to Dede Beasley, an equine therapist at The Ranch rehabilitation center in Tennessee, "There are striking similarities between horses and people."

A horse can sense emotions and react accordingly. If someone is anxiety-driven, the horse may get skittish. If someone is angry, the horse may become angry. But if approached calmly, the horse will respond in a calm, kind manner.

"As a sophisticated herd animal, horses immediately begin building relationships with people as members of their herd," Beasley said. "People then get to decide whether they will hold fast to their old ways of interacting or take this unique opportunity to develop a new kind of relationship."

Horses are large. They sometimes bring unmet needs, fears and past traumas to the fore or engender feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. Simple exercises like halting or leading the horse and grooming can teach a veteran how to approach with respect and awareness.

By working with horses and learning to understand their behavior, veterans can more easily recognize their conscious and unconscious actions and how their behavior impacts others. For example, being controlling or dominating will not work with a horse, nor will being detached or passive. The horse may not comply with your requests.

"These special animals allow people to bring all kinds of issues into the horse's world, and accept them as they are - imperfections and all," said Beasley.

"Horses don't judge," agreed Fritz. "They heal. The horse taught me how to love and feel. I think that's what it's taught other veterans."