Ken McCracken was only 23 when he arrived home from the Vietnam War in 1969. But he had seen more disturbing events during his stint in the Army than most see in a lifetime.
Despite being safely back at home, he found himself flinching and fidgeting every time a helicopter flew overhead.
When he enrolled in college, the teacher asked students to sit in alphabetical order. McCracken couldn’t do it — he insisted on sitting against the wall.
More than 40 years later, McCracken laments the fact that there weren’t programs available to support him during his difficult transition back into civilian life — programs like the one he’s involved in today.
The organization Veterans in United Cerebral Palsy, which works to advance the independence and productivity of veterans with disabilities, has launched a free new recreational horsemanship program in Nevada County geared toward the specific needs of veterans and active military.
Heroes Astride is based on the premise that the simple act of riding and being with a horse can benefit able-bodied, wounded or injured veterans. McCracken couldn’t agree more.
“An animal isn’t a threat,” he said. “It’s just neutral, it accepts you — it meets you on neutral ground.”
The new program is a great opportunity for veterans who have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, brain injury, stroke, amputation, as well as vision or hearing loss, says Martha Kubitschek, UCP Heroes Astride director.
“This program offers our veterans camaraderie, muscle building, stronger focus, memory skills and well-being through riding lessons, horse knowledge, games and exercises,” she added. “Our goal is to eventually have a program run by veterans for veterans, with professional support.”
Similar programs have yielded positive results for veterans with visible and invisible disabilities, added Kubitschek, as participants further develop their social and communication skills, while patience is reinforced and anxiety is managed by a horse’s soothing presence.
The Heroes Astride Program includes three free nine-week sessions, including a weekly hour-and-a-half lesson with horses and trained volunteers, many of whom have served in the military.
They are certified instructors through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
“Horses are perfect emotional mirrors,” said volunteer Marija Vulfs. “They allow us to take stock of our own emotional state. You meet horses where they are — never with fear or intimidation. They have so much to teach us in terms of acting with integrity, trust and respect. This program is doing work I truly believe in.”
The new Heroes Astride Program will be hosting an open house beginning at 10 a.m. Aug. 16 at the sprawling Blue Fountain Farm, 17761 Grizzly Bear Drive in Grass Valley. The event will include color guard, equestrian demonstrations, a petting zoo, interactive family activity stations, wagon rides and more. A barbecue lunch will be available for purchase.
“We are very excited about this new program and we want to share what we’re doing here with our community,” said Kubitschek. “This is all about giving back to our veterans and active military for the sacrifices they’ve made for our freedom.”
The program is made possible through time given by experienced volunteers and community donations. Every dollar donated goes back into the local program, said Kubitschek.
Heroes Astride is a sister program to Saddle Pals, whose mission is to advance the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities and their families through horsemanship.
Local veterans are encouraged to come out on Aug. 16 — or any Wednesday — to learn more about the program, even if they’ve never ridden a horse.
“If you come out, you don’t even have to be near the horses,” said volunteer Joanie Salyer. “You can just sit in the shade and watch the activity — it’s a beautiful place. We’ll have snacks and drinks. You don’t even have to talk to people if you don’t want to, but we’re a very accepting group. We laugh a lot.”
“When you think of it, horses have been such an integral part of our history — horses and humans it would seem are naturally connected,” she said. “Anyone who has known horses will tell you how highly intelligent and sensitive they are. Even in our postindustrial, highly technological society, horses have not lost their power to touch and change our lives.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4203.