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Horses helping wounded military veterans heal from injuries

The Healing Hearts Ranch in Tumwater is offering hippotherapy, to military veteran. It's a therapeutic program in which patients ride horses to improve the muscle strength, psychological well-being, balance and coordination. (Photo: KOMO News)

TUMWATER, Wash. - The thought of climbing on a horse to do physical therapy wasn't in Matt France's plans.

"I was at first, 'riding a horse? What benefit is that going to have'" said France, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Army.

But, the Iraqi war veteran suffers from fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that may have been brought on by an injury he suffered in battle.

"I had a mortar go off nearby and made my right arm and hand numb," said France. He was back on the job as a military police officer six months later.

Still, the back pain has persisted nearly eight years later and he said everything he's tried hasn't been successful.

That’s when he was introduced to hippotherapy, a therapeutic program to improve the muscle strength, psychological well-being, balance and coordination. And it involves riding a horse.

"When I first met Matt a year ago, he didn't want to ride, did like animals," said his physical therapist Cynthe Flaybaugh.

For the last year, he's been working with Flaybaugh and a horse named Bella at the Healing Hearts Ranch in Tumwater. He's been part of a program called Back in the Saddle Warriors created by the founder of Heartbeat Serving Wounded Warriors Janice Buckley.

"These warriors come back and they've paid a huge price for our country and our freedom," said Buckley.

The concept is fairly simple. Sitting on a moving horse mimics the movements of our legs.

"Essentially we are giving you the horses legs for a while and your torso and your muscles in your body have to react like a symmetrical walking person," said Flaybaugh.

The body has to learn how to balance itself while riding on the horse and that's helpful for people who have trouble walking or pain issues while standing up.

"It's kind of like what a chiropractor would do and adjusts you," said France. "It's almost like getting physical adjustment while you are on the animal."

Horses also have a unique ability to reflect a rider's emotions. Horses can perceive someone is anxious or nervous better than a fellow human can.

France also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and Bella has reflected back his emotions helping him learn how to calm down.

"I don't come at things so nuclear anymore," said France. "I'm more patient, more understanding and more compassionate than I ever have been."

Hippotherapy is a physical therapy not covered by the Veterans Administration or reimbursable by most insurance carriers.

"It's coded like physical therapy but if you say it's with a horse, they exclude it," said Flaybaugh.

So AT&T has donated $30,000 to Heartbeat Serving Wounded Warriors and it's Back in the Saddle Warriors program to keep it going and be a free service for active duty and retired members of the military.

"I think that's one of the great things about us as a company is being able to step in and bridge that gap and help out," said AT&T President of External Legislative Affairs Bob Bass.

France said the hippotherpay has helped in many ways. Flaybaugh said she's seen a big change too.

"He's doing great, I've just seen his spirit lift so much as well as his physical injury is healing," said Flaybaugh. "He has changed so much, he's actually thinking about getting a dog now."

Buckley plans to use the donation to possibly treat children of military families who could also benefit from hippotherapy.

"We can help take care of our warriors and we can do it in different ways if we involve the whole community," said Buckley.

France hopes the Veteran's Affairs office and insurance companies take a closer look at hippotherapy

"It's been great, I was 100 percent wrong I started," he said.

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