“Our veterans come to us from all generations and walks of life,” says Allison Wheaton, executive director of Summit Equestrian Center, an Equine Assisted Therapy organization in Fort Wayne. “Some hear about us through their therapist or doctor, but more often it’s the veteran’s family who hears about us and suggests they come check us out. It’s not something that works for everyone, but for those that it does, it just clicks. You don’t need to have any prior experience with horses. You just need to have an open mind and be ready to learn.”
Wheaton’s mission to help veterans comes with many years of experience and many inspiring stories.
“There’s a veteran who’s been coming to us for 13 years. He had a traumatic brain injury that caused him to lose control of the left side of his body and horseback riding has been his only consistent form of therapy. He went from his wheelchair to a walker, from a walker to his cane and now, he walks without any assistance. Coming to the barn was his physical therapy, but it also gave him a place where he could belong and feel normal.”
Having grown up around horses, Wheaton started Summit Equestrian Center in 2010 in the LaCabreah subdivision on Fort Wayne’s north side. That facility is still in operation, but over the last couple of years Wheaton expanded to keep the horses on a larger farm in Angola.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Summit Equestrian Center is a PATH Intl. Center (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). Wheaton is certified by EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) as an Equine Specialist and has training through Natural Lifemanship and Eponaquest to get a more holistic perspective on incorporating horses into mental health therapy.
“Through these trainings I can help people recognize the patterns they have in relationships and lead them toward healthier options. It can be easier taking feedback from a horse than a human. It feels more honest and is less pressure.”
Men and women who served in different military units around the globe are members of “The Cavalry” – Summit’s Equine Assisted Therapy program developed specifically to help veterans find purpose and community through working with horses. Families are also invited to participate as they, too, are impacted by their veteran’s experiences.
“I originally started out as a traditional riding therapy program for children and adults, but then I realized how much emotional therapy was needed for them in addition to the physical therapy,” says Wheaton. “I went back to school to learn how to provide that type of therapy. We do a lot of work with women, kids and at-risk youth, but our veteran community is underserved and needed an outlet.”
The equine team members come to the program with their own stories. Most are rescues or retirees from racing or show careers. Six of them are mustangs, gathered from across the American West.
“They came to Summit Equestrian without ever having been touched by people, just run through shoots and moved through corrals. The edginess of the wild horses can look like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can feel. Teaming the veterans with a wild horse opens the door for empathy and provides a learning opportunity for both participants. The same skills our mustang Geronimo needs to function in a world with humans, our veterans need to be able to go out in the community. It’s just easier to talk about the horse than ourselves sometimes.”
Wheaton says helping to rehabilitate and train the horses aligns with many of the veterans’ personalities. Helping others is often the reason they joined the service.
Zam, a retired show horse, has had to do specific strengthening exercises after a career-ending tendon injury. He is thriving in his new role, trail riding and showing newbies the ropes.
Maggie is a Percheron draft horse who is strong and reliable under-saddle.
Bryn was supposed to be a show horse, but didn’t make the cut. His gregarious personality might not have set him up to win ribbons, but Wheaton says he is a huge asset to the veterans both in and out of the arena.
“The horses see us for who we are without the burdens of what society thinks we should be. They can help us realize when we are being present, how to set boundaries and how to work toward a goal beyond ourselves.”
Equine Assisted Therapies involve a number of activities in addition to horseback riding. Clients can work toward physical goals as they care for and ride the horses. They can work on cognitive goals as they learn new skills and find new ways to communicate with a member of another species, following a series of directions and taking in new material.
“The emotional health benefits can be the biggest take away, as people find reason to leave the house, engage with other people with similar lived experiences, find connection and rewarding relationships,” says Wheaton.
In September, The Cavalry is teaming up with veterans from another program, BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Education Center, to ride 20 miles through Fort Wayne. The goal is to bring attention to the heartbreaking statistic that 20 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States.
“Programs like this and other community resources can help fight the crisis,” says Wheaton. “It’s critical that we do what we can to get the word out.”
On Friday, Sept. 15, The Cavalry is hosting an open house at its barn in LaCabreah. Guests will be able to meet the mustangs and learn more about The Cavalry. Saturday morning, they will depart from the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum on O’Day Road for the 20-mile ride. The entourage will head east, past the VA Medical Center, then through the streets of downtown Fort Wayne before ending back at the Shrine.
“The Cavalry is a program available to veterans at no cost,” says Wheaton. “It’s supported by donations, grants and funding from the community. It’s not the stories of our past, but the stories we are writing together for our future that are important.”
Join Summit Equestrian for its 5th annual Stock the Barn fundraiser on Nov. 10, 2023. This event helps support the Veteran Equine Therapy programs.
Address: 10808 LaCabreah Lane, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46845
Phone: (260) 619-2700