VIRGINIA BEACH -- Dozens of servicemen and women with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome are getting gentle support from some special four-legged therapists.
EQUI-KIDS, which is best known for supporting special needs children and adults, created EQUI-VETS three years ago to help service members wounded in the line of duty.
The program is in place to help heal the scars you can't see -- including depression and anxiety.
26-year-old Mark Barnes says he is one with his horse, Gator, both physically and mentally, which for a post traumatic stress disorder patient feels miraculous.
"I can't explain it. It's the fact that we have trust between one another. The fact that he meets me at the gate when I come in. Gator doesn't do that for anyone else," said Barnes.
During his 2011 deployment to Afghanistan, Mark was shot in the hand. Still, he says it was the previous deployments that causes his pain. Those are the deployments when he lost his closest friends. He counts them up quietly and says, "a total of nine." One of those men was his best friend.
He explains that he still sends flowers to this friend's wife on the day of their wedding anniversary in honor of his buddy.
He says he can talk to his horse much better than he can talk to his doctors.
"Doctors, who likes doctors?" Not Mark Barnes, but he does love horses.
Back in the stables, Brown Cornwell brushes big Sadie, who rode into his nightmare and rescued him from his anxiety.
"I was electrocuted while working on base in South Korea. There was a bad storm and I was working on power lines when they snapped and struck me twice- 13,800 volts," said Cornwell.
That scenario replayed in his head daily for years, until two years ago, when the dream stopped the first night he worked with Sadie.
"Brown was able to walk Sadie in between the power lines here at EQUI-KIDS without replaying his event. That was a huge day for him," says Jill Haag, director of EQUI-KIDS Therapeutic Riding Center.
She was elated when one of their board members, who is the CFO at Portfolio Recovery Associates, Inc., convinced his company to donate $20,000 to the EQUI-VETS program. The money will sponsor the next class of 20 PTSD and physically injured veterans' 6-week therapy program.
"The account had only a couple hundred dollars in it. I couldn't imagine ending a program in an area that has so many PTSD patients. It's only two years old and we have so many more people to help," said Haag.
Haag explains the horses are effective because they put the veterans in the present moment. The horses mirror the energy and behavior of the rider. She says that exchange manifests into a very peaceful feeling for the riders.
"We try to match them as best as possible, but the horse will do the rest of the work," said Haag.
Both Barnes and Cornwell agree that they've never been happier than they are now. They are both at the end of their military career and want to continue working with animals.
In a month, Cornwell will dump the cane he uses to get around and mount his horse.
He'll be seeing more of Barnes too, who says he'll work, "shoeing the horses."
For more information, call 721-7350 or go to the EQUI-KIDS/EQUI-VETS Website.