Horses doing their part to help veterans recover


Jennifer Tevlin, the special programs coordinator at the Sunnyside Equestrian Center, Middletown, has been giving a presentation entitled “Equine-Facilitated Mental Health for Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” around New Jersey and throughout the nation.

Tevlin said she works with the Wounded Warrior Project and said there is a Horses for Heroes program at the Sunnyside Equestrian Center. Her partner from Sunnyside who joins to present the information is Jackie West, the head instructor of the equestrian division at the facility.

During each presentation, Tevlin and West show their audience a poignant documentary titled “Riding My Way Back” that chronicles one soldier’s journey back from the brink of suicide. In 2010, Staff Sgt. Aaron Heliker returned from multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in addition to third-degree burns and nerve damage he sustained in a roadside bomb blast.

At his most desperate and isolated moment, while he was taking 42 medications and feeling suicidal, Heliker was introduced to the unlikeliest of saviors: a horse named Fred. Through caring for Fred and building mutual trust, Heliker began the process of reconnecting to the world around him and healing the wounds of war that had nearly defeated him, according to a synopsis of the film.

Joanne Schiumo, a retired kindergarten teacher in Millstone Township, saw the program and believed it handled the material in a sensitive manner that could enlighten people.

She said she would like to make more people aware of the presentation.

Maggi Romano of Millstone Township was also moved by the movie and presentation.

“I thought it was very important for veterans and the general public to know about the programs that are available,” Romano said.

Romano hosted a screening for the Horse Council at Rick’s Saddle Shop, Cream Ridge, in February. She met Tevlin and West and was impressed with their presentation.

Next, Romano approached officials at the Monmouth County Library System to schedule a screening of the documentary. The film was shown at the library headquarters in Manalapan in late June.

About 100 people attended the screening. Admission was free and donations that were received went to the Horses for Heroes scholarship fund, which provides equine-assisted activities and therapies to veterans who qualify on a financial need basis, Tevlin said.

Following the screening, there was a panel discussion featuring a veteran, a social worker from the Veterans Administration, Tevlin and West. They discussed how horses can help veterans deal with issues such as PTSD, TBI, anxiety and depression.

In April, Tevlin and West gave their address to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) Region 1 conference.

The director of a national campaign contacted the operators of all PATH premier accredited riding centers to ask them to show the film during Veterans Week to raise awareness about issues facing veterans.

Tevlin is dedicated to helping people through animal assisted activities and therapies. She said she believes it is important to show the documentary.

“We chose to show the film because we value, respect and appreciate veterans, active and reserve military members, and their families,” Tevlin said. “We wanted to help raise awareness about some of the issues they are facing, as well as how the equine assisted activities and therapies that we offer at Sunnyside can help.”

Tevlin said the presentation will next be given in November at the PATH conference in Ohio.

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