Program offers equine-assisted therapy to PTSD sufferers
DAVID STONE | OUR TOWN TEMPLE
Tiffany Zeitouni uses horse therapy to help soldiers combat PTSD, stress, depression and other mental ailments. But her customers aren’t the only ones who have battled adversity. The horses used in Tiffany’s Hoofbeats for Heroes programs are donated, and most have overcome physical and mental challenges themselves.
“One of our horses, Louie, suffered a severely broken leg,” Tiffany said during a Monday interview. “Another horse, Fancy, was caught in a fence trying to escape a wildfire a few years ago in Bastrop. Maggie was in a kill-pen situation and was about to be sent to slaughter in Mexico before I adopted her.”
“I guess I enjoy helping others — giving people and horses a second chance. There are a lot of soldiers who have had to deal with extreme adversity. Horses, too. That’s OK,” Tiffany said. “Adversity makes us who we are.”
Tiffany’s Hoofbeats for Heroes program is based at the 750-acre BLORA Ranch, located at the Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area.
“I visited BLORA in 2016 with my field studies class from Texas A&M to learn about park science and management,” she recalled. “We came out to the ranch, and it was basically closed. It was overgrown and empty. I expressed an interest in using the ranch for a community service program built around horses. I think I left some contact information, but I forgot all about it.”
“A year or so went by, and one day I received an email from the Army,” she said. “They wanted me to run a horse program. I’ve always wanted to serve on the Homefront and boost morale. Now I have the opportunity to help suffering soldiers.”
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Tiffany grew up in the heart of Houston, and despite living in the inner city, she was exposed to horses and the damaging effects of post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — at an early age.
“I guess I was 3 or 4 when Mom took me to a place in Houston that had pony rides,” she said. “I used to beg her to take me there every weekend. That led to horseback lessons.”
“A few years later, we moved to the northside of Houston — the Cypress area,” she said. “I got my first horse when I was 11, and I joined 4H and learned leadership skills. 4H built my platform for wanting to change lives — I started volunteering and helping others. Now, that’s who I am.”
Tiffany’s dad, Oscar Jenkins, is a 25-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department. He worked in the city’s 5th Ward, a cluster of neighborhoods northeast of downtown that have a history of high crime and social disorder.
“He developed PTSD, and it eventually progressed to the point where he won’t leave the house. He became a prisoner of his own home.”
He did, however, help Tiffany settle into the BLORA Ranch after she signed a contract with the US Army. She learned a lot about the condition and how to deal with it by working with her dad.
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“I contracted with the Army to run a horse program at BLORA,” she said. “We offer horseback riding lessons, pony rides, trail rides and equine-assisted therapy. The therapy program kind of evolved, and I ended up designing a program that is used by the Army.”
According to Tiffany, the equine-assisted therapy classes usually include about eight soldiers, veterans or military family members.
“Most have PTSD, but some are dealing with depression or stress,” she said. “Some are transitioning out of the Army and are having difficulty making decisions on their own again.”
“The first thing we do is teach them how to halter a horse. We use two horses to demonstrate the haltering technique. After they get this down, we have them go catch a horse. I don’t tell them which horse to catch — they make that decision.”
“Some want to catch a spirited horse, some want a more relaxed animal. The horses have ailments: Many are old and retired, one as a cataract and some are recovering from serious injury. They aren’t perfect, but like many people, they still have a purpose.”
Once the participants have their horse, they are taught how to “saddle up” and then the group takes a trail ride.
“Out on the trail, horse and rider must work together to get past obstacles. They must work as one.”
“After the ride, we take off the saddles and do a trust exercise,” she said. “One participant leads the horse and another rides bareback without bridals. The rider must trust the other person and the animal, and they must be empowered within themselves that they can do it.”
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Horse-riding lessons and trail rides are open to the public at BLORA, but the equine-assisted therapy sessions are reserved for active-duty military, their families and veterans.
“Trail rides are an adventure — an escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life,” she said. “They offer an escape to nature and a chance to embark on a new journey in life. Just getting in the saddle is huge. We’ve had people come in who were extremely afraid of horses. Now, some of those folks own their own ranches.”