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Horses Healing Humans Helps Vets on the Path to Recovery

 story and photo
by Anna Maria Trusky

After Lee Paradis of North Stonington suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2009 car accident, she found that her three-decade career as a dental hygienist and periodontal assistant was over. Vestibular and cognitive challenges made it hard to perform normal, everyday tasks and carpal-tunnel impairments severely restricted the use of her hands.

A lifelong horsewoman, Lee felt it would be beneficial to spend time volunteering at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding, Inc., in Old Lyme—a move that dramatically changed the outcome of her recovery and her life. Today Lee and a team of therapists, instructors, and horses help bring healing to others recovering from injuries and trauma—including U.S. Armed Forces veterans.

Lee Paradis of North Stonington, Director of Horses Healing Humans, in the indoor ring at Starboard Stables in Stonington with Lenny Macaione, a vet from Westerly, and Wookie, a resident therapy horse.

Lee recalls that she was so impressed with the healing effects of therapeutic riding that she decided to stay at High Hopes, complete a course in therapeutic rider instruction through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, and establish a new therapeutic program, Horses Healing Humans, Inc. Its mission is “to help heal people with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges through Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy conducted by caring, credentialed professionals, protecting both the physical and emotional safety of all clients.”

Lee first ran Horses Healing Humans, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, at a stable in Voluntown; however, the program quickly outgrew the space. So Lee sublet a larger space at Starboard Stables in Stonington and reopened the program last July 1. All volunteers, Lee and the rest of her staff care for the facility and the horses, which belong to Starboard Stables. Like High Hopes, Horses Healing Humans is a member of PATH International.

“We have licensed mental-health professionals on staff, as well as equine specialists in mental health. That way, there is always someone has to look out for the human and someone to look out for the horse,” she explained. “Most of the vets who come into the program are self-referred or hear about the program through friends. They are also referred by physicians, physical therapists, and mental health professionals.

“A lot of the service people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), depression, and anxiety. Working with horses is very helpful. We use exercises designed to create a metaphor for what is going on in the person’s life. How they react to a particular exercise tells us what is going on with them. Horses are very sensitive to emotional energy. If a vet is anxious, the horse will become anxious, too.” Lee explained.

In addition to performing unmounted exercises with the horses, vets are invited to help perform horse care (which helps with self-care and relationships with others), and carry out other relaxing, yet productive, activities outdoors.

On one recent day, Lenny Macaione, a Korean War-era vet from Westerly, was in the indoor ring being helped by Lee and Lise Mayers, LICSW, along with Wookie, a beautiful brown-and-white paint. They instructed Lenny in how to guide the horse to walk around in larger and larger circles. The exercise was designed to help Lenny gain confidence. A former Third-Infantry artillery gunner, Lenny’s smiles spoke volumes about how he responded to the exercise.

Lee is hoping mental health programs in the area will see how valuable this work is and refer more of their clients to Horses Healing Humans, which also has programs for people with autism and women who have been abused. “There are so many vets coming home with a need, and we are working to address that need,” she said. “We are hoping to get grants and funding to help support our vets program.”

Horses Healing Humans, Therapeutic Horsemanship in Coastal Connecticut, is located at Starboard Stables, 340 New London Turnpike (Route 184), Stonington. For more information, contact Lee Paradis, Director, at 860.460.4107, or leeparadis@gmail.com, or go to www.paradistherapeuticriding.com. To volunteer, contact Kathryn Vine, Volunteer Coordinator, at 860.381.0755, or hhhtrkv@gmail.com.