Swanton, Ohio --
Imagine trying to lead a 1,500 lb. Belgian horse through an obstacle course in an arena the size of a football field. Now, think about how you would accomplish this without touching or talking to the horse.
This was one of the challenges members of 180th leadership team faced when they participated in team-building exercises designed by H.O.O.V.E.S, a non-profit Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy program. EAP uses activities with horses to promote growth and learning.
H.O.O.V.E.S, Healing of Veterans through Equine-assisted Services, was started in January 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Amanda Thompson, a command support staff personnel technician assigned to the 112th Fighter Squadron at the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard. She is also a certified equine specialist. "I always knew I wanted to help people," said Thompson. "In December 2008, I met a gentleman who spoke to me about EAP. I knew as soon as he told me about it that it was something that I wanted to do."
One goal of H.O.O.V.E.S. is to provide team-building and individual therapy sessions to service members, veterans and their families, at no cost.
"My strict rule is that no veteran will ever pay money out of pocket for the services provided by this program," said Thompson. The program can bill TRICARE insurance directly in some instances, but H.O.O.V.E.S. also holds fund raisers to support this objective.
Last fall, the 180th leadership team participated in a team-building session at a H.O.O.V.E.S. arena in Oregon, Ohio because most of the team was relatively new.
"To be honest, I didn't know what we were getting into until we showed up," said Chief Master Sgt. Tracy Troxel, 180th command chief. "Though, when we got there we found out that the session was tailored for us. There were leadership and team-building exercises because we were a new leadership team on base."
One of the team's activities, Thompson said, was to build a jump for the horses then lead them over the jump. The team had three minutes to plan how they would accomplish this task. While completing the task, no one was allowed to talk and they were instructed not to touch the horses.
"The inability to use verbal communication made the activities challenging," said Col. William Giezie, 180th mission support group commander. "There weren't harnesses on the horses so there wasn't anything to use to control the horses. Plus, they were very large horses, so it was a little intimidating working with them at first."
Thompson said the jump activity was designed to reveal a person's leadership style. An aggressive leader might be to chase the horses over the jump. Some people have tried to bribe the horses with food, while others have tried to lead the horses by their example.
"We were responsible for figuring out what each horse responded to from a leadership prospective," said Troxel.
You learn, Giezie added, that just like with people, you aren't going to force a 1,500 lb. animal to do something.
" We figured out pretty quickly that if we did everything as a group then the horses wanted to naturally be a part of the group, part of the herd," said Giezie. "They followed along with us."
Also, Troxel said, they figured out ways to make a connection with the horses by using eye contact and hand signals. At first, it was tough for them because they didn't know the horses' personalities. But, after an hour or two, they were able to figure what each horse liked, and what they didn't like.
It was really eye opening to see each individual's leadership styles, said Troxel, because leading horses was somewhat equivalent to leading people - both, depending on their personality, respond to different stimuli.
"The thing that amazed me about the leadership team was that at no point did anyone of those men try to force the horse over a jump," said Thompson. "When they realized that they built a jump too high they knocked it down a level. Furthermore, they took the jump and carried it to each horse and guided the horse over it."
"All of the exercises allowed us to get to know one another and build confidence in one another," said Troxel.
H.O.O.V.E.S also offers individual therapy sessions for service members, and civilians, who may suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions or mental health issues.
In an individual session, Thompson said, a client goes through different ground exercises with the horses, like the team-building sessions. During these exercises, the horses mirror whatever is going on with the client because they are herd animals and they communicate through body language. If a client said that he was happy but his body language said that he was angry, then the horses would react as if they were angry - horses have a built-in lie detector test.
Also, Thompson said, anyone who attends a session with H.O.O.V.E.S. does not have to put their name down on any of the paper work because confidentiality is an integral part of the program.
"We always try to let clients come up with their own agendas," said Thompson. "We don't project anything that we are feeling or thinking about the session on them. It is strictly on the client to come to their own conclusions."
The ground activities, Thompson said, often turn into a metaphor for something that is going on in the client's life. For example, the jump activity can reveal to the client how they react to a co-worker or family member.
Troxel said that he could see this program being useful for veterans with PTSD because it could give these veterans tactics to overcome internal issues.
After his experience, Giezie added, he could see the benefits of working with horses to resolve mental, emotional or physical challenges because horses don't judge you like people do. Horses want to be appreciated just like people do.
"We had a service member from the180th sign up for our program who spent some time in Iraq," said Thompson. "He had symptoms of PTSD and he was not able to sleep at night. After he completed six sessions, he wrote me a testimony that brought tears to my eyes. After his first session, he had his first full night's sleep in three years."
Early on, Thompson said, she decided that if she could only help one person then all her work would be worth it.
"So far, we have never had anyone walk away or say that they haven't gotten something out of it," said Thompson.
H.O.O.V.E.S operates at indoor facilities in Grand Rapids, as well as Oregon, which allows the staff to conduct sessions year-around.
"H.O.O.V.E.S is an outstanding program and they do a lot more than team building and leadership development," said Troxel. "Abstract learning environments are often some of the best."
He added that the members of the 180th leadership team still talk about their experience because it really helped them to gel and learn how each team member responded to different leadership situations.
Thompson said, before she started her training in EAP, she knew horses were healing animals because she is a lifelong equestrian and saw the benefits in her own life. Now, her life's mission is to give this type of healing to other people.
"If you have someone like Amanda in there, who knows what she is doing, then there are an awful lot of uses for this type of therapy," said Giezie.
For more information about H.O.O.V.E.S., please visit www.hooves.us