OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - The work of an Osceola County program treating post-traumatic stress disorder with horses is now being called groundbreaking.
The program expanded six months ago after the county joined University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine and the McCormick Research Institute to open a state-of-the-art facility.
Since then, the program has earned the highest international acclaim, serving as a worldwide model of success.
“I have a purpose every day to get up and life is amazing every day,” said veteran Kelly Smith.
Smith served several tours in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
She begins many days with her therapy horse, Willie.
Smith said she’s a much different person than she was two years ago.
“I wasn’t as open. I didn’t talk much. I was very angry,” Smith said.
Closed off and suffering from post-traumatic stress, a friend recommended she try the Horses and Heroes program.
The transformation wasn't overnight, but the more connected she allowed herself to feel to her horse, helped her open up to others.
“You can’t help but smile. You can’t help but be a part of something again, to be able to live your life,” Smith said.
Smith’s story is just one of many reasons the program was recently named a premier accredited center by the world’s leading organization for equine-therapy facilities.
“We’ve had people go from severely depressed, to normal and maintain that,” said Dr. Manette Monroe, with UCF College of Medicine.
She’s led six years of horse-driven research.
“They’re like giant, bio-feedback machines,” she said.
The program had significant results with its first 87 clients.
“Our heartrate connects with theirs and we synchronize, and our heart rate slows as well, and that’s calming and soothing,” Monroe said.
Learning to lean into that trust hasn’t just lessened Smith’s symptoms, but carried her closer to a healing she never thought she’d find.
“No matter what, you just don’t feel that aloneness. It’s like somebody’s always got your back,” Smith said.
The Horses and Heroes program treats up to 40 veterans a year.
The therapy is also being used at the center for those with movement disorders and children with autism.
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