Arlington's caisson horses do double duty in riding program

A therapeutic riding program at Fort Myer is helping service members regain mobility and confidence. Editor's note: One of the participants in the riding program, Capt. Mariah Kochavi, 29, died Dec. 24 of complications from a stroke she suffered last year.
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009

A stronger blast, a little less luck, and the horse that Marine Sgt. Michael Blair is riding down an Arlington County trail could easily be pulling his coffin.

"It's an honor riding these horses, knowing what they do," he said.

The horses that Blair rides in a rehabilitation program for wounded service members also pull the caissons that carry fallen troops for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. At times, Blair rides them along the same road, turning and heading back to the barn before reaching the cemetery.

Blair, 34, was on a security mission in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving rolled over a pressure-plate mine packed with explosives. When he regained consciousness, he saw two singed holes in his camouflage pants where his knees should have been.

After 60 surgeries, including the fusion of cadaver bone to his right knee, Blair still walks on his own two legs, his recovery aided in large part by the civilian therapeutic riding program he entered in 2006.

Today, the Caisson Platoon Equine-Assisted Riding Program, headed by military veterans Mary Jo Beckman and Larry Pence and supported by the Veterans Administration, counts hundreds of service members as testament to the success of matching wounded warriors with horses. The program, based at Fort Myer, accepts any service member, wounded physically or psychologically, certain that it has benefits for all participants.

The connection that the caisson horses have with the military community helps the wounded troops in ways other forms of traditional rehabilitation can't, Beckman and Pence said. It allows troops to bond with the horses they ride, which, Pence said, has been shown to help improve the riders' moods.

Unlike in some other rehabilitation programs, riders work their muscles naturally, said Pence, 63, a retired Army command sergeant major from Fredericksburg. Studies have shown that a horse's gait closely mimics the human stride, he said. As the service members ride, they exercise the same muscle groups they would if they were walking and simultaneously train core muscles to help improve balance and stability.

The riding program takes wounded troops outside, far beyond the walls of the clinical setting of a hospital. It is the only therapeutic riding program at a military base on the East Coast. Instead of nurses, it uses combat soldiers assigned to the Old Guard, the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.

Beckman, 58, a retired Navy commander from Falls Church, is a certified therapeutic riding instructor for the physically disabled. She designed the program to help service members who suffer from a variety of impairments, including amputations and traumatic brain injuries. For many participants, it is their first time on a horse.

"Squeeze the horse like it's a tube of toothpaste," Beckman tells her more timid participants, as their mounts clip-clop along.

During a session, riders guide their horses through a series of cones while performing movements meant to expand their mobility and coordination. They stretch their arms out and twist to touch the horse's tail, then their toes, then the horse's ears.

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