Offering Veterans Equine Therapy
Pennsylvania’s deputy adjutant general for Veterans Affairs paid a visit to Building Bridges Foundation at Anderson Farms on July 17. Maj. Gen. Eric Weller was joined by Chip Gilliland, chief of reintegration and outreach, and Rick Hamp, director of the Bureau of Programs, Initiatives, Reintegration, and Outreach for the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Office of Veterans Affairs. The three men had traveled from Fort Indiantown-Gap to the horse farm at 230 Indian Hill Road, Conestoga, to learn more about equine therapy for veterans.
Foundation board member Charlyne Holder explained that the idea for the program was broached about two years ago, when farm owner Dave Anderson was considering selling the property. Allyson Plasterer, who had lived and worked on the farm during college, asked Anderson if he would consider allowing her to use the farm and the horses to offer equine therapy to military veterans.
“Dave is a veteran too,” Holder said. “He wanted to do what he can to help them.”
To bring the idea into fruition, Plasterer, who is a second-grade teacher for the School District of Lancaster, received training in the Eagala Model, a team approach in which a client works with a registered, credentialed mental health professional, a qualified equine specialist, and a horse at the same time. The goal of the program is to help veterans work through trauma and other issues in order to help them reintegrate with civilian society. Sessions are also conducted in conjunction with Writeface, which helps veterans process their experiences through writing.
Seven horses make their home at Building Bridges. From those, each veteran is allowed to choose which horse to work with during a session. Mr. Friendly lives up to his name, and Plasterer’s personal horse, Whiskey, is also especially good with people. Several of the horses are off-track thoroughbreds, some of whom are still uncertain about humans.
“As the horses work with veterans, (the horses) will gain connection and trust with people,” Plasterer said. “And by working with horses, (the veterans) build brain pathways (to move out of hypervigilance).”
“Horses are nonthreatening,” Holder explained. “They’re nonjudgmental. That’s what’s so exciting about this. You can bond with horses without talking, or you can tell them anything.”
Building Bridges began offering equine therapy sessions in January, and somewhere between 15 and 20 veterans have gone through the six-week program. A family therapy session was launched on July 18. Plasterer noted that she would like to offer family reunification programs in which families could stay in the large house and have sessions with the horses.
“Taking it to the next level is exciting,” she said.
The sessions are free for veterans, so to make up the approximately $100,000 annual budget, Building Bridges has accepted donations through a GoFundMe account, rented out the house via a private homestay app, received a few grants, and benefited from Anderson’s generosity. A fundraising event will be held at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2, at the Millersville VFW, 219 Walnut Hill Road. A total of 30 firearms will be awarded during prize drawings, and only 1,700 tickets will be sold. Food and beverages will be served during the event. Folks may call 717-368-3019 to buy tickets.
“Building Bridges certainly serves veterans,” Hamp remarked at the end of the farm tour. “Veterans bring back skills, enthusiasm, (and more). The more we can help people realize that, (the better for everyone).”
Folks who would like to volunteer or partner with Building Bridges Foundation are welcome to call the aforementioned number. To learn more, readers may visit https://www.buildingbridgesfoundation.org, and social media users may search Facebook for “horses4vets” or “Building Bridges Foundation.”