GREENFIELD — For Vietnam veteran Larry Evans, the horses help.
For decades, Evans struggled with his anger, his guilt and other side effects of the war. Nothing seemed to do much good, until last summer.
That’s when Evans participated in Horses for Heroes, a special pilot program at Edelweiss Equine Assisted Therapy Center targeted at veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and various other maladies, like those Evans deals with related to exposure to the chemical Agent Orange.
That summer was a first for the program locally. Edelweiss invited four local veterans to participate in its new Horses for Heroes program. The vets rode twice a month and practiced proficiency as a horseback color guard.
Now they’ll demonstrate their progress in hopes of finding others to join their ranks.
At 2 p.m. Friday, Horses for Heroes Color Guard will take center stage at a statewide horse show, Hoosier Horse Fair, in the West Pavilion Cattle Barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Ultimately, the demonstration is less about what the riders are able to accomplish by riding the animals and more about what the animals have done for the riders through their growing relationships at Edelweiss.
Through learning to ride and control the animals the men have also learned how to control their own emotions.
When Edelweiss Executive Director Shirley Mascoe helped get the program started she wasn’t sure what to expect.
She had seen first-hand the positive effects horseback riding can have on children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities. But Horses for Heroes would be something entirely different.
The four veterans she recruited last summer tested the waters.
The results were significant, Mascoe said, especially for the two riders who have been most severely impacted by their wartime experiences.
“Their symptoms have been reduced while being involved with the program,” she said. “There is a lot of positive that comes out of it.”
Now, Edelweiss and the veterans are hoping through participation in the horse fair to open the program to a wider audience, including more recent veterans, for its second year.
The Hoosier Horse Fair is the state’s largest annual horse event, and demonstrating the program there could give the Edelweiss program the opportunity it seeks.
“We’re hoping the Hoosier Horse Fair will be a good place to raise money and interest,” Mascoe said.
The program is offered at no cost to veterans. With plans to expand the program to as many as 10 riders, Mascoe said Edelweiss is always looking for sponsors.
This year’s Horses for Heroes group will meet every week. Because the facility can only handle about five riders at one time, participants will take turns socializing for one hour and riding for the other. A mental health professional will be on hand at each session as well in case the experience triggers a veteran dealing with PTSD or if they just need someone to talk to. She said a counselor hasn’t been needed yet, but it’s always better to be safe. Mike Gerrish also believes in the power of Horses for Heroes. That’s why Gerrish, the equineassisted programs committee chairman for the Indiana Horse Council, helped get the troop a demonstration slot at the upcoming horse fair. “People would be amazed at what can be accomplished at these centers with horses,” Gerrish said. “It’s not always just the physical ability of being able to do things; sometimes it’s the mental abilities and emotional abilities that are able to be affected positively with horses.” Don’t believe him? Just ask Evans. The 66-year-old Greenfield resident said the war broke up his first marriage, cost him more than his fair share of jobs and has saddled him with medical conditions that require 18 pills and five injections a day. And then there’s the anger. For the past 45 years, Evans has struggled with his anger and his temper. But over the past year it has gotten a lot better, he said. He’s more calm, and Horses for Heroes gives him something to look forward to.
That’s why he is not only going back for the second year, but also trying to get other veterans to join him. “Since the horses, I don’t get near as mad as I used to,” he said. “I don’t feel as guilty as I used to.” Guilt has plagued Evans since he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1967, after he was taken out of Vietnam by medical evacuation. “The guilt I felt was after a big firefight or something, looking over at that fellow Marine that was dead and being glad it was him and not you,” Evans recalled. “I’ll be dealing with it to the day I die. “But the horses … there’s just something about them. When you’re riding them it just makes everything look a little bit brighter.”