Horses are heroes for Operation Centaur veterans at Centenary

By Nancy Jaffer
February 28, 2016

Patrick Kelly gives Tucker a post-ride hug.
It looks like an ordinary riding lesson, the kind of session in which beginners get their first taste of working with horses and being in the saddle.

But what goes on during weekly sessions of Operation Centaur at the Centenary College equestrian center in Long Valley is actually a healing process for those whose military service has left them in need of mending, either physically or psychologically.

”Veterans are citizens who want nothing more than to get on with their lives,” observed retired Maj. George Paffendorf, the volunteer director of Operation Centaur, which is part of TRAC (Therapeutic Riding at Centenary).

Speaking about the participants who served in Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan, he observed, ”They received the best training in the world in the military, and they were good at their jobs.

”Then something went wrong. Some are dealing with anger management, some with traumatic brain injury. Now they’re trying to put the pieces together, trying to reintegrate into society,” he commented.

Operation Centaur is one of 317 such programs for veterans across the country certified since 2007 by Denver-based PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). Though psychological wounds are not visible, they are real and they hurt.

”We never talk therapy,” George emphasized. But what goes on is therapeutic. The message to his troops in the indoor arena is simple: ”We’re going to learn about horses and have some fun while we do it.”

The veterans start with classroom sessions to learn about the parts of the horse and tack. They are taught how to catch their horses and bring them in from the pasture, then spend time grooming and tacking up. As the weeks go by, they move from leading their horses through various patterns, to riding with a lead rope held by one of the dedicated volunteers who make the program possible. Finally, the rope is unsnapped and they are able to ride on their own, with supervision.

”First we crawl, then we walk, then we run, and we don’t miss any steps in between,” said George.

That’s the way training goes in the military, and the veterans recognize it.

”I don’t want to get them on the horse with the first lesson, because that’s starting with the roof. We build the foundation and we don’t do any shortcuts. It’s always safety first,” commented George, who used to show quarter horses and is a licensed New York City carriage driver. He has a background working with at risk and special needs populations and youth programs.

The vets bond quickly with their horses. Much thought goes into pairing the veterans with the right mount. George mentioned Deanie, a black and white mare being handled by M.J. Emmons, who was with the Medical Service Corps and had been stationed in Kuwait. She commutes two hours one-way each week from her home in Pemberton to come to Centenary.

”We talked about things and what she was trying to get out of the program. Deanie wants to please, and that was what she needed, something that would respond to her,” George explained about how the horse and M.J. got together.

Patrick Kelly rides Tucker off the lead with volunteer Vera Dragunis standing by.

After a number of overseas deployments, M.J. said she felt her life ”snowballed out of control.” She had ridden years ago, and wanted to try it again.

”It’s relaxing,” she said, commenting that when she rides, ”I don’t feel like I’m on edge. The horse is looking to you and depends on you,” she continued, noting that is a reason ”to get your act together.”

Patrick Kelly, a member of the group whose lessons run through mid-March, talked about ”having made a connection with something bigger than myself” when he got to know Tucker, a  heavy-set, personality-plus paint who exudes a comforting charisma.

A Mendham resident who was in the service for 22 years, Patrick had been stationed in Kuwait and was involved with air mobility, moving wounded soldiers in and out of the region during operation Iraqi Freedom, so they could be hospitalized in Germany.

”These were the most critical cases. Soldiers had just had their limbs amputated in a field hospital and were being rushed to Germany.  A lot of these guys didn’t survive the seven-hour flight,” he said, with a catch in his voice.

”It was just horrible. It wore me down, night after night.”

”After my deployment,” said the retired master sergeant, ”I felt alone, even though I was surrounded by people, and I couldn’t relate. But the horse I was assigned to, I could relate to him and I feel he is relating to me. It’s a weird connection I’ve never had before with an animal. There is a combination of trust with the instructor, Vera (Dragunas, certified by PATH) believing what she was telling me, and then it became trust with the horse.”

It was touching to see Patrick hug Tucker and plant a kiss on the horse after his ride. The appreciation he feels shines in his face.

TRAC was started in 2003 under the guidance of Octavia Brown, who is its director. She is a professor of equine studies at Centenary and one of the USA’s pioneers in therapeutic riding since the mid-1960s, having founded Somerset Hills Handicapped Riding in Bedminster (now Mane Stream in Oldwick).

After she and George saw the movie, ”Riding My Way Back” (about a soldier saved from suicide by his relationship with a horse), ”the two of us looked at each other and said, `Oh, how about that?”’

”PATH indicated the Wounded Warrior Project was looking to fund equine-assisted programs to veterans,” she continued, noting it has a networking system of emails about opportunities in the areas were veterans live.

Many of the therapeutic riders with whom Octavia worked over the decades have dealt with whatever their situation is since birth. The veterans are different.

”These people come in having been essentially able-bodied, whole people, and then their experience has left them with damage. It’s often PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but it might be other things. They didn’t go into this thinking they’d come out like this.” Many are also taking medication, she noted.

Operation Centaur Director George Paffendorf with M.J. Emmons.

The current group, the second to be enrolled in Operation Centaur, is doing 12 sessions funded by PATH. George said the organization has an umbrella grant from the Wounded Warrior Partnership Program. The money was used for buying helmets and equipment, while TRAC covers horse expenses, according to Octavia. The Veterans Administration and Hackettstown Rotary added funding to extend the program beyond the usual 10 weeks.

There may be opportunities for trail riding in the future after the veterans finish their course, and they are invited to come back and visit their horses.

While it takes a team to work with veterans, Octavia knows what is most important in the equation.

”The horse is the kingpin in all of this. It’s the relationship with the horse that opens up these possibilities. It makes you perhaps a little more humble and very aware of the partnership.”

Since horses ”live in the moment,” that helps the veterans to do the same thing, focusing on the task at hand and leaving their cares behind during the time they are with the animal.

Those in the first Operation Centaur group last year reported the program gave them the knowledge of  how to deal with triggering events that normally could send them into a tailspin.

Octavia said they learned they could control the brain like any other muscle to make an end run around negative thinking. It goes this way, she said: ”PTSD brings out the trauma, but I’m with the horse and I don’t have time for that now.”

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