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Healing with Hunter: Program aims to help veterans through equine therapy

Walk By Faith Therapeutic Riding founders Kristen, left, and Travis Schwarz work with veteran Crystal Guzman during a recent session at the UMC Equine Arena. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Crystal Guzman, a Minnesota National Guard veteran who served in Afghanistan, shares a laugh with Travis Schwarz as she grooms Hunter, a rescued Mustang, recently at the University of Minnesota-Crookston Equine Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

FISHER, Minn. -- Before Hunter came to Walk by Faith Therapeutic Riding, the yearling mustang had never been touched by a human.

He was scared and spooked easily.

Kristen Schwarz, cofounder of the nonprofit Walk By Faith, said it took patience and time before the horse began to trust people -- nearly four years later he’s still sometimes uncertain.

The veterans who participate in Walk By Faith’s program can relate to Hunter, Schwarz said, because they may also be slow to trust.

“Sometimes when they come home from being deployed or they exit the military -- it’s learning to live in a different world again. So that transition can be hard, and with Hunter it’s the same way. Learning to trust people you didn’t before or learning to live in a world that you’re not used to anymore. So the cool part is they understand each other. They’re on that journey together.”

Starting from scratch

Schwarz and her husband, Travis Schwarz, opened Walk By Faith in 2014 and offered summer programs that gave children with disabilities the opportunity to ride and interact with horses as a form of alternative therapy.

Kristen is certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International and said she wanted to find a way to give back while incorporating horses.

Research has shown that being around animals can have a calming or relaxing affect. Kristen said she isn’t trained in mental health specifically, but has seen how handling horses can be beneficial because “horses are an excellent mirror of our emotions.”

“Anytime you can see that emotion coming back through an animal it makes you more aware,” she said. “And we don’t tap into that, we don’t ask what you’re feeling, but we do sometimes say ‘What’s affecting the horse right now?’ … It’s a great way to see what you’re feeling.”

For several months after adopting Hunter, they weren’t able to touch him. Kristen said she and her children would eat beside the pen so he could get used to being around people.

Their first session took place over a weekend, and by the end, one of the participating veterans broke through to the horse and touched him.

“From the time that we first touched him in January, he began to trust in a quick hurry,” Kristen said. “And once he trusted us, they are so intelligent that his training progressed quickly. We had a saddle on him in July just to see how he handled it and I believe it was the next summer that we rode him.”

‘I feel more positive’

For Crystal Guzman, the PTSD manifests in her anxiety. She served as a medic in the Minnesota Army National Guard for 10 years -- spending a year deployed in Afghanistan. Guzman said she helped with helicopter medical evacuations after a devastating earthquake.

“I think for me, most of mine came from long-term exposure. When I was in Afghanistan, we treated a lot of burned women and children,” she said. “I think it just kind of wears on you over time.”

“I think it’s different for everyone,” her husband, Pat Guzman, said. “We both struggle with PTSD and depression and anxiety.”

Crystal said she notices her PTSD surfacing in anxiety -- she feels like she needs to constantly reorganize or always be ready and feels extremely nervous about leaving her children with anyone else.

Pat said his PTSD is rooted more so in frustration and anger. He served in the Marine Corps as a combat engineer and a training instructor.

“I think it’s just part of the group I was in,” he said. “Marines are always trying to show off, I think that’s where it comes from, just being a little aggressive.”

For both Crystal and Pat, working with the horses has helped to rebuild their confidence and relieve some of the PTSD symptoms.

“Everytime you go in there, you have to clear your mind, you have to clear your head, get your breathing going and relax. It’s just you and that horse. … I think one of the best things about working with these horses is it helps my attitude,” Pat Guzman said. “I can be in a … poor attitude and I go mess with them for a few hours and then I come out and because you have to focus so hard on being calm, that when you get done, at least for a few hours, I’m OK.”

“I think my anxiety has come down a lot,” Crystal said. “And I think my coping has improved a lot. I feel more positive,” she said.

'Goals to grow’

Kristen said the program is still small, with only a handful of veterans participating, but the group has become a family.

“For the veterans I think it’s about camaraderie, they’ve all got something in common and have shared experiences,” she said.

Chris Rohlfing joined the group when he moved to Crookston several years ago after leaving the Army to pursue college. He said it was hard at first to find new friends because his experience was so different than most traditional college students. He met a few other veterans who connected him to the program and helped him find a place where he felt like he belonged.

Kristen said she hopes to connect with even more people and grow the community.

“We want to reach more individuals that it could be beneficial for,” she said.

Walk by Faith is hosting the next session for veterans March 23 at the University of Minnesota-Crookston. Interested veterans can find out more on their Facebook page or at walkbyfaiththerapeuticriding.com.

“It’s pretty incredible when we watch some of the things that those veterans are able to accomplish and the reaction they get when that happens -- it’s pretty incredible,” Kristen said. “We wanted to give back to them. They gave us our freedom and they continue to do so, and this is our way of doing that and being able to give them something like that. It fills your heart up.”

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