(Tory Ryden, NEWS CENTER) -- It takes a team of handlers to get Vietnam Veteran Janet Oday up on a horse at the Carlisle Academy in Lyman. There, there, we did it, Yay!” Oday exclaimed as she shifted all the way onto the horse’s chestnut colored back. The horse is called Onyx and seems to have an understanding of what she brings to the veteran. “You know I use the word euphoria for how I feel when I’m on the horse,” Oday explained. “And I think the more I think about it it’s because I feel like the horse is doing my mobility for me.”

And that is important for Janet Oday, who’s been using a cane for years. She broke her neck in a service connected car accident, leaving her initially a quadriplegic. “It was finally my rehabilitation doctor who told me, suggested I do hippotherapy.”

Hippotherapy, by definition is the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment used to improve coordination, balance and strength.

“This is all about you being independent. Ready? Plan your halt,” a horse handler said aloud. At Carlisle Academy, a premier integrative riding academy, Veterans are reclaiming their physical and mental independence on the backs of horses.

For some, like Debra Moulton, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, it’s the only time they feel free. “They accept you without prejudice. As long as you respect them, and if you respect them, they’re going to respect you.”

Moulton suffers from PTSD and carries a heavy load of guilt.
“You think back on situations that may have occurred and you go ‘why’d I do it?’ or ‘why did they tell me to do that?’ or ‘could I have handled that better?’ It’s always a self blame. In my experience it’s constantly self blame.”

But as with Janet, once Debra’s up on a horse, well the world looks a lot different. That self blame? Gone. “They’re a total mirror of what you’re feeling, and you feed off them, they feed off you, here she comes, and I just relax. I just totally relax and you have to be in the present with a horse because it’s a big animal.”

A voice pierces the quiet of the bucolic farm. It is British horse trainer Clive Milkens. “Now if I were you I’d suggest you shorten your reins up just a little bit.” Milkens has been immersed in paradressage and disability sports training for the past 29 years and with veterans he heaps on the humor. “Which way are we going at the end?” he quizzed Janet Oday as she navigated Onyx around the circular horse ring. “Are you sure? Definite? Good! Well done.” Rider and horse seem to both appreciate the banter. Milkens reflects on why this kind of therapy works. “There’s actually that moment of peace in a crazy world, and on the back of a horse you regain that freedom, you regain that control and empowerment that suddenly you lost for an awful set of circumstances, that’s what they do for veterans.”

Sarah Armentrout and her husband own and run Carlisle Academy. In between trips to the barn for hay to feed the six horses currently kept in the outdoor pens, she takes a break to talk about the program she started in 2008. “We’ve really utilized the horses here for someone’s healing or emotional rehabilitation or bonding with an animal in a way that maybe opens doors for them that maybe they had closed off.”

Armentrout, who also works with developmentally and emotionally challenged children and adults, calls the impact of her veterans program “profound”. Armentrout explained, “When you put them on a horse it’s amazing actually how much function and ability comes back.”

And, one step further, Carlisle has the country’s only para equestrian program ---the sports side of equestrian sports but for disabled veterans. “Para dressage is the 8th discipline in the Paralympic family of equestrian sports and some of our fellow para dressage Olympians just rode at the Rio Olympics.”

A V-A Adaptive Sports Grant is allowing Sarah to take what she knows on the road---she’ll travel the country teaching what it takes to run a para equestrian program. “I would like so many more veterans to know that this is an avenue for them where they can go perhaps from therapy to equestrian sport.”

Back in the ring, Janet Oday is appearing comfortable on Onyx’s back. “I’m ready..oh someone braided your hair today!”

While competition may not be on Janet or Debra’s radar,
keeping a weekly appointment at Carlisle Academy most certainly is. “My husband is kind of funny,” Moulton shared.
“He knows Tuesdays he goes ‘you’re going to giddy up and go He said in some writing to my counselor he says ‘the only time I see her smile is when she comes home from the farm.” Janet Oday completely understand. “I do cherish it. It’s the most important day of the week for me.” And, though when she’s on the ground she relies on her cane for balance, up on Onyx it’s just a woman and her horse. “I feel very empowered that I’m moving nicely. You know, not with my crutches, you know limping along and I think that’s what I really like about it.”

For information on Carlisle Academy’s Veterans program in Lyman, check out their website at http://carlisleacademymaine.com/programs/therapy-adaptive/veterans/ or call them directly at: (207) 985-0374. For information, email them at: info@carlisleacademymaine.com

In Denmark, Bull Ring Belgians offers therapeutic riding, driving and equine assisted wellness for veterans . For information, call them directly at (207) 256-057; email bullringbelgians@gmail.com. Website: https://equinejourneysme.com