Photo courtesy of Project Horses for Forces
By Steve Sears
Ruth Nortje, Director of Project Horses for Forces in Long Valley, sets the scene for those who have yet to take the lovely trek up Keltz Lane.
“When people come, they will often tell me that the moment they start driving down that driveway, they can start feeling the stress drop off their shoulders and they can start feeling the heavy burdens just going,” Nortje says. “And of course, initially when they first join the program, that feeling only lasts for a couple hours after they leave, but then as they keep coming, that feeling starts to last longer and longer, and that becomes part of their system again. They feel that peace, and that this farm is just a very, very, very serene, beautiful and peaceful place.”
Nortje is describing the entrance to the Drakestown Equestrian Facility in Long Valley, which is home to Project Horses for Forces, a 501c3 non-profit organization. Project Horses for Forces hosts current or former veterans with visible or non-visible wounds from service, and sometimes their families, aiding them in getting better to reenter civilian life.
Nortje, who competed in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics as well as the PanAmerican Games, has both owned and worked with horses since she was young. A PATH Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor, she also worked at an Adaptive Riding & Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies Facility for almost 10 years, so she knows horses and the benefit of them for healing. She explains the difference between Project Horses for Forces and other programs. “First, we provide programs obviously free of cost,” she says. “Some programs do charge for them, but we provide programs free of any cost for any of our participants.”
Secondly, Project Horses for Forces includes the whole family. There are a number of visible and non-visible wounds that could affect veterans and their loved ones. A short list includes PTSD, traumatic brain injury and its side effects, substance abuse and its side effects and after effects, back problems that don’t allow function or ability to walk, and perhaps even being physically disabled. “That affects their family, so the whole family suffers together and the whole family heals together,” Nortje says. “And the awesome thing is when you see families telling you that it has changed their family dynamic, it has brought them together.”
Then the third thing that sets Project Horses for Forces apart is that they have no cutoff points. Nortje explains why. “If you consider that they (returning veterans of war) get about 60% improvement in those sensations in their symptoms, they’re sleeping better, they have less flashbacks, or they start to feel more serene, on a daily basis and then on an hourly basis. They start to feel more relaxed; they can breathe again, they don’t feel the anxiety and all those things. We don’t abandon our warriors once they’re in our program.”
There are 25 horses on the farm, and Project Horses for Forces, which celebrated five years in June, has access to about 15. There are programs for individuals or for groups, and horsemanship with optional riding lessons are offered. As for those who wish not to get involved with the horses, there is the option of doing vegetable gardening, maintenance work on the pasture, stalls or the barn itself, upkeep of the riding arena, clearing of the forest trail, or other facility needs.
And, it’s all done among nature.
Of the volunteer team at Project Horses for Forces, some are civilians, but some are veterans. “We have a lot of veterans that are part of our volunteer group, and I will tell you they are dedicated,” Nortje says. “The principle is, for healing to happen, you want a sense of comfortableness around one another. And then of course, the horse is the one who brings this recognition and awareness to the person, and they learn from that and change their ways from that. Then, the environment helps to rewire their brain and get the brain relaxed again, for that sense of well being to become more of a standard feeling instead of a momentary thing.”
For more information about Project Horses for Forces, visit www.horsesforforces.weebly.com.