Participants have called the program transformative and lifesaving.
WEST BRIDGEWATER — When some think of ways to recover from a traumatic experience, injury or psychological challenge, they may think of therapy or self-care.
For the 100 veterans who have participated in a therapeutic program called Horses for Heroes in the past decade, learning how to communicate with the animals, read their body language and command them has been their way to healing.
"It's a pretty empowering feeling to control an animal like that because you have built a relationship," said Julie Lovely, executive director of Wild Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Program, which runs Horses for Heroes. "The best way to establish a relationship with the horses is from the ground."
Wild Hearts has operated horse therapy programs in West Bridgewater for 10 years. Lovely cares for the horses at a stable at her home and works with a team of trainers, a clinician and volunteers to run the nonprofit's programs.
On Saturday, the organization celebrated with a benefit dinner that featured a silent auction, musical performance and demonstration from the program's miniature horses, Jimmy and Bootsy.
Since 2013, Wild Hearts has focused on mental health through horsemanship.
Initially, the organization was therapeutic riding for children, but Lovely wanted to make the shift because she felt there was a gap in resources for veterans. Working with them would be the best way to help the community, she said.
Participants and therapists have told her that the program is transformative and lifesaving.
"When you think of how many people we've helped and how many we've reached through them, that's unfathomable," Lovely said.
Horses can help participants identify patterns of behavior and coping mechanisms, she said.
"They have to be aware of their own internal state," Lovely said. "A horse will mirror how you're feeling."
For example, a horse may change its breathing to match a person's or not respond to a command if it senses a person is nervous, she said.
Veterans and other clients can work with five horses at the stable. Kipper and Echo were donated to the program. Bootsy and Jimmy are miniature horses Lovely adopted after they were rescued from an animal abuse operation in central Massachusetts.
Izzy, Lovely's personal horse, currently isn't participating in the program because he's recovering from injuries.
The horses range from 12 to 27 years old and not all of them are suitable for riding anymore. Working on ground skills with participants is a way the horses can stay active, she said.
"It gives them something to do and they can be a part of this," Lovely said.
The animals can also help people learn concepts, like setting boundaries.
On Tuesday, Lovely demonstrated horsemanship skills with Echo.
She waved the rope connected to Echo's harness to get the horse to back up. After she swung a rope near Echo's hindquarters for him to rotate in a circle.
Veterans can also participate in equine facilitated psychotherapy, which is for clients who work with the horses and a therapist.
Both programs are free of cost to veterans. For civilians, equine facilitated psychotherapy is offered on a sliding cost scale to help with affordability.
Individual contributions and support from local businesses helps Wild Hearts provide the program for free and to maintain operation costs, Lovely said.
Most people Wild Hearts works with hadn't worked with horses before coming to the program, she said.
Participants have come to the organization by word of mouth. The organization has also built relationships with therapists at the Brockton and Warwick, R.I. Veterans Administration medical centers and the Brockton vet center who have referred people to Wild Hearts.
Looking ahead, Lovely looks to expand who the program can help. She wants to add programs for families and work with first responders.
Transportation is another area she will look into because it can be a barrier of whether veterans can come to West Bridgewater to participate in the programs.
Staff writer Mina Corpuz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mlcorpuz.