Emma Paden begins today’s session the same way she begins them all, by outlining the measures visitors must take to ensure safe interactions with Jake, Jazzy, and any of the other horses and ponies taking part in today’s activities. Most of these visitors can rehearse Paden’s routine by now – in fact beyond the safety measures, they have mastered the finer points of grooming, handling, and leading. Since SUNY Cobleskill and Albany Stratton VA Medical Center launched a collaboration to bring Veterans to the College’s Equine Center for a weekly program, the number of participants has grown from two to closer to a dozen.
Paden, the College’s assistant equine manager, Associate Professor Marny Mansfield, and three student-volunteers are all on-hand from SUNY Cobleskill. An ever-expanding contingent from Stratton VA fills a bus from Albany each week for two hours of groundwork (unmounted) programming with the horses. The equine-assisted activity sessions include trust-building and equine communication exercises. As they learn about the horses, participants in many cases learn about themselves.
SUNY Cobleskill received an innovative Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH Intl.) Equine Services for Heroes (ES4H) VA Direct Service Grant to commence a therapeutic horsemanship program on campus this spring. As those sessions wound down, the College struck an agreement with Stratton VA to form a partnership that would allow a group of Veterans to visit the College once a week, and, in effect, continue the program. The eager participation of students and staff followed shortly thereafter. Carolyn Nelson ’20 is one of those student-volunteers. A Veteran herself, Nelson made the decision to return to college to complete her four-year degree in 2017, after SUNY Cobleskill introduced its Bachelor of Technology in Therapeutic Horsemanship.
“I had experience working with children, and before that I had served in the military,” says Nelson. “After I came back to school, one of the questions that came up in class is ‘How can we help?’ Working with children is a common answer, and working with veterans came up shortly after that. My question became “Why can’t this [type of] programming be more readily available?’”
Not all participants – neither on the SUNY Cobleskill side nor the Stratton VA side – possess Nelson’s dual-perspective. She says her goal is to apply her SUNY Cobleskill Therapeutic Horsemanship education and her background in leadership for the benefit of all with a “desire to learn.” She acknowledges that, given her background, she places particular emphasis on helping the veteran population.
Lyndsey Rhodes leads the group from Stratton VA. She says in some form or another, she has worked towards building and sustaining a program of this kind for years, getting one up and running in 2017. After completing a capstone project involving animal-assisted therapies and their benefits for Veterans living with PTSD, putting in the grunt work to form a program, and reconnecting with Paden, things have taken shape at SUNY Cobleskill. Rhodes says she has seen a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms among participating Veterans, in information collected via surveys, reflections, and one-on-one conversations.
The program, which was initially slated to run only through the spring, is helping the College widen its equine-assisted activities footprint. Paden is a fellow of the Institute for Rural Vitality at SUNY Cobleskill, working to mobilize equine-assisted activities that branch out from the College through “The Pony Project.” This summer and fall she has travelled to area senior living facilities and preschools with Fuji, a pony who lives at the Equine Center. Mansfield, a PATH Intl. certified Master instructor, Registered Therapist, and evaluator, has been invited to speak at Path Intl.’s 50th anniversary conference and annual meeting November 8-10 in Denver.
Nelson, Rhodes, and several of the Veterans cite the program as a highlight of their week. Such is evidenced by the number of participants able to recite Paden’s safety briefing with word-for-word accuracy.