For Vietnam veteran Bruce Bennett, horseback riding is his absolute sanctuary. “I came back from Vietnam with a broken back,” he explained. “From that, I’ve had a lot of problems from the mid-back down, but riding [horses] has helped strengthen my legs and core. It’s now easier for me to get up in the morning.”
Bennett is one of several area veterans who volunteer their time at Hearts Adaptive Horseback Riding, a 12-acre therapeutic horseback riding facility located between Santa Barbara and Goleta. Specializing in therapeutic riding for nearly 65 riders each week, Hearts treats both adults and children with a variety of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others. Serving the community since its inception in 1985, the program’s newest project-Horses for Heroes-focuses on treating U.S. armed services veterans.
Able to duplicate the three-dimensional movement of the human hips, sitting astride a horse allows individuals who cannot walk, or cannot walk without assistance, to be moved as if they were walking normally. This movement not only increases blood flow, but also strengthens back and core muscles, stimulates vital organs, and improves overall fitness. Connie Weinsoff, program director for Hearts, said in addition to its physical advantages, horseback riding can also have positive emotional effects for war veterans. “Riding horses, for people who have depression and PTSD, is a very well-known method used to connect people to things other than themselves,” Weinsoff said. “It also helps them connect with other human beings later on down the road.” According to Weinsoff, by engaging in outdoor activities that are both physical and challenging, many veterans have had easier transitions back into mainstream society.
With its ocean views, looping trails, three riding arenas, and 12 specially trained horses (and miniature donkey), Weinsoff said Hearts has the tools necessary to conduct a successful veteran rehabilitation program. Each instructor at Hearts is accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, which serves as the national standard for therapeutic horseback riding. Horses for Heroes, which has been in development for about a year and a half, will utilize all 12 of the program’s accredited horses and respective trainers, as well as volunteers from the local veteran community. Volunteer Celeste Carlisle said the program hinges around the idea of veterans helping other veterans learn to both ride and appreciate horses.
Bennett, who also serves as chairperson of the Veterans Committee, said his connections to the program’s horses are invaluable, providing him with an unwavering enjoyment for riding horses and the outdoors. “Like I tell everybody, you can tell a horse anything,” he said. “You make a connection with these animals, and they’re very intuitive. Most of them will understand what your needs are and respond to them. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Hearts Adaptive Riding is located at 4420 Calle Real in Santa Barbara, on the site of the old Santa Barbara landfill, near the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. For more information, call 964-1519 or visit heartsadaptiveriding.org.