Equine therapy program helps military vets transition to civilian life

This article, written by Glenn Hunter, originally appeared in D Magazine on January 28, 2018.

Participants in the Jan. 25 panel included, from left, Christa Collum, Joe Lucido, and Dr. John Burruss. (Photo by Bob Manzano)

Participants in the Jan. 25 panel included, from left, Christa Collum, Joe Lucido, and Dr. John Burruss. (Photo by Bob Manzano)

Joe Lucido, a retired Army sergeant and combat veteran, sat in front of a group of about 50 people one night last week and explained how he wound up volunteering with Equest’s Hooves for Heroes group.

Equest is a Dallas-based nonprofit that helps children and adults through equine-assisted activities and therapies, and Hooves is a five-year-old Equest program targeting military veterans and their families with the likes of mental-health counseling and therapeutic horsemanship.

“I was not a functional individual. I needed to make progress. I was a mess when I showed up at Equest,” Lucido said. “All I knew about horses was they would bite you, or fall over on you. I wasn’t sure how a horse could help me, but I had nothing to lose.

“A horse is a prey animal, and I realized that’s what we [soldiers] were on the battlefield, too,” the veteran went on, telling how he’d come to “bond” with the nonprofit’s therapy horses.

Without Equest, I would not have made the progress that I have.
— Joe Lucido, Equest's Hooves for Heroes participant

Lucido was one of several people explaining Hooves for Heroes during a Thursday, Jan. 25 panel discussion and “patron party” at the North Dallas home of Greg Nieberding. Others weighing in about the free program, which so far has helped 900 military members, first responders, and their families transition to civilian life through equestrian therapy, were Jeff Hensley, Equest director of clinical and veterans services; Christa Collum, Equest program counselor; and Dr. John Burruss, CEO of Metrocare Services. Dallas-based Metrocare is one of the busiest providers of public health services in Texas, serving more than 54,000 unduplicated patients each year.

At one point during the discussion, Collum asked Burruss to address the mental-health challenges that some veterans face. “Experience changes you—not just the people who serve. Your brain adapts,” Burruss replied. 

Seventy-five to 80 percent of veterans return to civilian life with no diagnosis. But one-quarter to one-fifth coming back end up with a diagnosable condition. Your brain is not accommodating to the new situation.
— Dr. John Burruss, CEO of Metrocare

Unfortunately, “there is a bias against these [mental] illnesses—a societal stigma,” Burruss said. “‘Is it shameful?’ the veterans wonder. ‘Does it mean I’m weak?’

“Equine therapy has been around a long time,” the CEO added a little later. “The [new aspect] is, can we bring evidence-based research to it? You’ve got to get hard data” documenting its results.

Hensley agreed, pointing out that Equest now is partnering with Metrocare Services to conduct such research about the Hooves for Heroes program. “Once that happens,” Hensley said, “we’ll be able to replicate” the therapy program elsewhere.

CJ Bankhead