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Veterans empowered by horsemanship serve as ‘Pathfinders’


“Horses change lives. They give young people confidence and self-esteem. They provide peace and tranquility to troubled souls. They give us hope.” – Toni Robinson

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Social anxiety, insecurity, purpose in retirement, frustration, shyness – these were the issues brought to the stable in the most recent “Pathfinder Initiative” session.

That’s not uncommon. Pathfinder’s mission and curriculum were inspired by a veteran whose own life-changing experience took place at a therapeutic riding center in Wildwood, thanks to a devoted instructor he met there.

Mike Pereira, a former U.S. Army sergeant and current social work graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “When I returned from Iraq, I wasn’t afraid of anything and that was a problem. I wasn’t afraid – until I stood next to a horse.”

As he learned the skills to overcome this fear and not only lead, but also enjoy having a large animal in hand, Pereira was compelled to help other veterans facing their fears – things like landing and keeping a job, not depending on prescriptions, maintaining relationships and making friends.

When he promotes the Pathfinder Initiative, Pereira is enthusiastic but pauses to tell a hard truth based on Department of Veterans Affairs’ statistics: 20 veterans commit suicide daily. However, programs like the Pathfinder Initiative are countermeasures to despair, and they lead to post-traumatic growth.

When asked to help, horse instructor Steven Marchal jumped at the chance. He had realized no one was focusing on the skill of groundwork, which establishes mutual respect, trust and safety, and is widely promoted by modern “natural horsemanship” trainers. Marchal, who is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship [PATH], formed Take the Reins St. Louis in April 2016.

Together, Pereira and Marchal have co-led sessions at area stables and now are planning sessions at Castlewood Stables in Ballwin.

Pathfinder Richard Binder with his equine partner, Dyna

Tim and Maria’s story

Pathfinder Tim Brack, of St. Charles, joined the Marine Corps in 2005 and trained at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. After working on Harrier aircraft and returning to civilian life, he understood a quote attributed to four-star General James F. Amos – “There’s no such thing as a former Marine.”

As Tim explained, “Every Marine is potentially a weapon. I trained to be a fighter – you can be as deadly with your body as with a weapon.” Although some former enlisted Marines are fully ready to be civilians, Tim said, “Others are like me; some days are really rough.”

Tim believes his doctors have genuinely tried to help him while trying out more than 12 psychiatric medications and others for fibromyalgia, and he said intense physical training helps him “mellow out.”

Still, he said, “I sometimes feel like reverting to combat mode.”

At one point, Tim was on the maximum dose of duloxetine [Cymbalta]. “It basically turned me into a vegetable for four days in April 2016,” he said. Two months later, he began the Pathfinder program after running into Pereira at the VA’s Hope Recovery Center.

“I’d been around horses before that, but not to the level of interaction as with Steven and Mike,” he said. “For me, it’s like cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s more holistic, as opposed to sitting in a 10-by-10 room with a doctor asking you questions like, ‘How do you feel about that?’ It’s a way to more naturally focus on mindfulness. It helps me get my head on straight.

“Now that I’ve been through it and done it, I can look back on what I’ve done, and it’s easier for my brain to process than learning new techniques in a boardroom with veterans. I don’t know how to apply VA treatment to my life – it doesn’t translate as easily. I can’t be in combat mode and think back to learning about breathing when I’m in a stressful situation. But now I look back and try to think how a horse might feel.”

Tim’s wife, Maria, said that life after the service has “been a roller coaster.” From injuries and reactions to medications, Tim has had four life-threatening experiences. “I don’t sleep because I take care of him,” Maria said. “There were times I just couldn’t move him. I would find him on his back like a turtle. It’s been a crazy eight years of marriage.”

At Tim’s second Take the Reins/Pathfinder Initiative session, Maria also participated. “They gave me Susie, an alpha mare, and I wondered why,” she said. “Working with her made me realize she was me, because she had to take care of her herd like I had to with Tim. I learned a lot from her.

“The horses have really helped me get out more and see things in a different way. I hide my emotions, but horses can sense emotions. Before volunteering one day, I was upset. Kaiser, this big draft horse, felt my energy from far away. I finally told him I’d let it go, and then he was fine.”

The Bracks were part of a Pathfinder team that volunteered in February when Pereira asked for help repairing a vandalized Jewish cemetery in University City. There, they met Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens. The group also has volunteered at Epworth Children and Family Services in Webster Groves and the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Richmond Heights.

Identify, equip, engage

The Pathfinder program’s theme is based on professional counseling advice: “Identify, Equip, Engage.”

Pereira believes this mantra applies perfectly to working with horses. Participating in the program, Pathfinders learn to transfer the mantra to daily life. Pathfinders also learn the importance of being patient, praising horses and each other, setting boundaries and goals, being firm and staying calm around sensitive animals who match a person’s energy.

At rest, a horse’s heartbeat is slower than a human’s, so being in the presence of a horse can lower a person’s heart rate, according to scientific studies conducted at the University of Kentucky. HeartMath® Institute in California also has studied cardioelectromagnetic communication between humans and horses, and published data on heart-rhythm synchronization.

Pathfinder participants begin their training by studying herd dynamics: Who’s the boss? Who’s submissive? What does this mean psychologically for horses? Participants progress to haltering and leading a horse in an arena and around the stable. They groom horses and practice a technique known as pressure-and-release. Blindfolded, they navigate an obstacle course with simulated landmines. First, they traverse the course with a human partner, listening closely and relying on verbal commands. Then, they repeat the exercise while leading a horse. In another lesson, they learn how to catch a horse that has been turned out to pasture – a task that can take time and analytical skills.

Steven Marchal demonstrates trust between man and horse.

At the end of each session is time for “mindfulness and meditation” with an equine partner. Some participants groom their horses; others pet them silently or talk to them like a friend. Finally, with everyone gathered in a meeting room with snacks, Marchal and Pereira recap the session and ask if anyone has insights or comments.

Upon completion of the course, graduates are invited to mentor future participants and continue growing socially, cognitively and emotionally.

The program is free for veterans and their dependents; social workers; first responders; trauma victims; and at-risk youth. Learn more at www.takethereinsstl.org.

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