“I feel like these animals really see me.” Equine Therapy champions those who proudly served our country

It’s always a good day at the Sunny Horse Foundation, a Broomfield non-profit specializing in equine classes tailored for veterans who have served our nation. On a gorgeous spring day in May, Paul, a proud marine veteran who lives at Catholic Charities Samaritan House, returned to the horseback riding center, a place that has been at the heart of his recent success. The first time he visited Sunny Horse, he physically felt a weight lift and his spirits soar. He not only connected with Little Bit, one of the horses at the foundation, but he also bonded with the barn cat, Tweedie and the surrounding birds who sang as he sat with the animals.

The foundation, started by Pam and Bob Thode eight years ago, launched the Veteran’s Equine Program in 2016 to focus on equine assisted learning activities for veterans and active military members. Over the past four years, they’ve collaborated with their parish – Spirit of Christ in Arvada – and Catholic Charities Samaritan House in downtown Denver to provide veterans the chance to engage in mindfulness exercises. Pam and other volunteers lead the sessions, incorporating techniques such as daily reflections and mindfulness practices, guiding veterans to find solace as they connect with the horses. Veterans are encouraged to place their hands on the animal’s hearts and carefully brush their manes.

The interactions between veterans and the equine companions offer therapeutic benefits, addressing both physical and mental challenges that so many people who have served our country face. The sessions also give individuals a few hours a week to focus on themselves outside of the shelter and share their experiences in and out of combat. Joseph, a navy veteran, shared that having a reprieve from the city to head to the barn is the break he looks forward to every Wednesday.

“Working with the horses was both very relaxing and soothing. I grew up in Brooklyn near a farm, and I always wished I could spend more time with animals. I feel like these animals really see me,” said Joseph.

The main theme of this day’s visit was the value of commitment. Pam chose the theme to remind riders to keep their commitment to the horses each week and to take care of themselves. Veterans are invited to the center every Wednesday during the spring and summer and are encouraged to reflect on themes after they leave to aid them in their daily lives.

Thanks to programs like Sunny Horse and Samaritan House, the City of Denver has seen a 30% decrease in veterans experiencing homelessness in 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Equine therapy, which is just one of dozens of programs accessible to veterans living at Samaritan House, is a chance to connect and heal and stay on the path towards independence.

“I am thankful for the peace this place brought me today. I was nervous to come, but I am glad I did,” said Paul.

Since Sunny Horse partnered with Samaritan House in 2018, the program has flourished, serving dozens of returning and first-time veterans to the facility each week. The continued bonds shared between the animals and residents are remembered, long after the veterans leave Samaritan House and find their way to more permanent housing.

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