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Veterans Program Grows at High Horses’ New Facility in Sharon

  • High Horses instructor Molly Fenty watches rider Klarey Black, of Enfield, N.H., go over a jump at the facility on Nov. 3, 2017. in Sharon, Vt. Fenty is a Marine veteran. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Army veteran Steven Martel, of Whitefield, N.H., grooms Jack at High Horses in Sharon, Vt., on Nov. 3, 2017. Martel served in the Army from November 2006 until August 2016. Before coming to High Horses his horse exposure had been minimal. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • High Horses instructor Molly Fenty and her husband Joshua give a tour to friends Amy and Anthony Barker of Stratton, Maine, on Nov. 3, 2017, in Sharon, Vt. Molly Fenty is a Marine veteran and she and her husband live in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Army veteran Steven Martel, of Whitefield, N.H., keeps a steady hand on Jack while grooming him at High Horses in Sharon, Vt., on Nov. 3, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Army veteran Steven Martel, of Whitefield, N.H., takes Jack to his paddock after grooming and walking him at High Horses in Sharon, Vt., on Nov. 3, 2017. With him is Molly Fenty an instructor at the facility. Fenty is a Marine veteran. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, November 11, 2017

On a stormy day last week at High Horses, the therapeutic riding program in Sharon, a seemingly immovable object met an eventually unstoppable force.

Bart, a 23-year-old black Percheron-cross, stood patiently in a horse barn while Marilyn Priest began the process of getting him ready for riding.

Called tacking up, the routine involved brushing his coat, combing his mane and tail and picking his hooves clean, as well as putting on a bareback pad, so that Priest would have a better feel for Bart’s movements than a traditional saddle would allow.

Bart is one of 10 horses available at High Horses for working with veterans and people with disabilities to improve or enhance physical and mental skills, or to deal with anxiety or PTSD.

An Army veteran who served during the Vietnam era and has dealt with PTSD, Priest had heard, through the Vet Center in White River Junction, about the Equine Services for Heroes program, which offers therapeutic riding at no charge to military veterans. She’d traveled from her home in Concord for her first lesson, and hoped to make a practice of it. It would be her first time riding a horse since high school.

Molly Fenty, an instructor, gently coached Priest how to begin currying Bart. A slightly jittery Priest was on Bart’s left side, while Fenty stood behind her and observed.

A Marine Corps veteran, Fenty, who suffered a devastating injury to the spine during a training accident, used equine therapy herself to restore mobility. She is also executive director of the Hooved Animal Sanctuary in Chelsea, and lives with her husband, also a veteran, in Hartford.

“Take a deep breath, he’s going to know if you’re nervous. This is a place where you can practice letting go,” Fenty told Priest.

“I’m not nervous about him!” Priest said.

Bart submitted calmly to the brushing of his coat but when it came time to clean his hooves, he was quietly stubborn. Priest tried to coax him to lift his hoof so she could apply a pick, but no dice.

“There’s a reason horses don’t like to pick up their feet. It’s a big trust issue for horses to let you lift up their feet,” Fenty said. Priest pushed and pulled and talked to him, but Bart was not budging.

“I can’t do it,” Priest said. The effort of trying to move a 1,240-pound, 15-hands high horse had made her hot, despite the cool temperatures of the unheated barn, and she removed her jacket

“He is being a little difficult. He’s making you earn it,” Fenty said.

As the women talked, and other riders and horses made their way past him, Bart stood stolidly, but his ears pricked up and swiveled like antennae as he registered the shifts in atmosphere around him. Fenty showed Priest where to exert gentle pressure on a lower tendon in his left hind leg so she could nudge Bart’s hoof upward. After a few tries, it worked. Bart relaxed just enough to let Priest complete the job.

Founded 25 years ago, High Horses leased property in Norwich and White River Junction until the organization raised the funds to buy a horse farm off Fay Brook Road in Sharon that had been used previously as a boarding stable and a breeding farm for Morgan horses.

They have been on the site for a little more than a year, and are in the middle of a capital campaign to raise $2 million for office and classroom space, equipment and a reserve fund. To date, some $1.3 million has been raised, said Nicole Jorgensen, the organization’s executive director.

High Horses is a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), which certifies equine therapy programs.

More than 135 volunteers work to keep the Sharon programs going and the horses cared for. In 2017, the Equine Services for Heroes has enrolled 15 veterans, compared to six in 2016, which Jorgensen attributed to the program’s ability to offer expanded hours and more lessons.

Horses for the program are selected for their temperament, Jorgensen said. Because they work with such a wide range of people, from such a wide range of ages and experiences, they can’t spook easily, she said.

The program also chooses horses for size and shape to accommodate the variety of people who will ride them. They prefer to use horses that are in their teens and older. A horse can work a maximum three hours daily, no more than five days a week. The work horses include Haflingers, quarter horses, an Irish Sport Horse, Morgan crosses, a Connemara pony and a Norwegian Fjord horse, Jorgensen said.

One of the reasons that horses are well-suited to providing therapy for humans, said Jorgensen, is that their gait is the closest to a human gait, so that humans have a sense of working in sync with the horse. “If you can trust them they can trust you,” she said.

“Horses are much more in tune to us than we are to ourselves,” Fenty said.

When a horse and a human are of one mind, and in a sense, of one body, Fenty added, the trust and cooperation between them is similar to the cohesion that a military unit can achieve with the right leadership and spirit of collaboration.

Further, Jorgensen said, it’s a sport in which most people can see steady improvement, with practice.

Priest was ready to mount Bart. There were two ways to do it: by climbing a small set of steps next to the horse, or by walking up a ramp to a platform more or less level with his back. Choosing the latter, Priest cautiously swung herself over onto the horse and sat without difficulty.

“I got it! Hello, baby!” she exulted.

As a beginning rider, Priest would be accompanied by a leader, a person holding Bart’s reins, and two walkers on either side.

There was another rider in the ring: Theresa Willis, a younger veteran who served in both the Navy and the Army and had been riding at High Horses for three months; she also volunteers there. She was diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury in 2012 after a year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Her mount was Clancy, an Irish Sport Horse.

Priest and Willis, on their separate mounts, circled the ring, following Fenty’s instructions, raising their arms in the air, pointing their feet up and down, rather than sideways, leaning as far back in the saddle as they could go, to warm up and stretch, and to begin conditioning the muscles in their thighs.

But when it came time to follow commands, Clancy was, not to put too fine a point on it, reluctant. Lethargic, one might say. Urged into a trot, Clancy eked out a moderate amble.

“How fast can I walk?” Fenty joked.

“He’s testing me a lot,” Willis said.

When Fenty asked the riders to stop, Priest said, “Whoa,” and Bart pulled up immediately.

“That was a definite stop,” Fenty said. Priest dismounted, looking elated.

Afterward, Priest said that she now felt more confident.

“I’ve been really ready. I’ve been waiting for this,” she said.

Through riding, Willis said she is able to negate some of the effects of PTSD because she doesn’t feel that she has to be on guard every second for minute changes in sound, smell or movement.

“They’re a lot better at it than I am, so I can focus on nothing but the horse and me,” she said.

One of the distinctions between the High Horses program and other riding lessons, Priest said, is that she was able to groom Bart and establish a nascent relationship with him as opposed to showing up for a lesson and being put on a horse.

“If I’d just walked in, and he’d been saddled, it would not have meant anything. It would have just been another experience,” she said. Her second lesson was yesterday.

To commemorate Veterans Day, High Horses will hold two public events today. Theresa Willis will give a program at Tractor Supply in West Lebanon from 2 to 4 p.m. Amanda Lamoreux, horse herd coordinator and instructor, will represent High Horses at West Lebanon Feed and Supply with a miniature horse.

For information go to highhorses.org or call 802-763-3280.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.