Mary Jo Beckman, a retired Navy commander and licensed therapeutic-riding instructor with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, approached the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) at Fort Myer, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center personnel in Washington, D.C., to develop the program.
Through the program, Soldiers with disabilities can strengthen their bodies and relax their minds by riding horseback, said Ms. Beckman, who pairs the Soldiers with horses to strengthen the Soldiers' muscles and help them regain balance and confidence.
In the corral, which is used by Old Guard Caisson Platoon horses that pull the casket-carrying caisson at Arlington National Cemetery funerals, Ms. Beckman leads riders and their horses through various drills. Each is designed to focus on the Soldiers' abilities, rather than on their disabilities.
From the center of the corral, Ms. Beckman directs the students to ride sidesaddle and backwards, clockwise, then counterclockwise, gradually picking up the pace just short of a trot. Volunteers from the Caisson Plt. keep pace with the horses, acting as spotters and engaging the riders in games of Nerf-ball tosses.
It helps that the horses--Mickey, Minnie and Wyatt--are the gentlest mounts in the stables, Ms. Beckman said. They've all undergone special training to become accustomed to games of catch, during which objects are thrown at them.
And, judging by the broad smiles on the Walter Reed patients' faces, this form of physical therapy--hard as it might be--doesn't feel like work, she said. The cumbersome protective helmets the Soldiers wear seem to be their greatest discomforts.
"It's all about balance, coordination and stabilization of the body," said Ms. Beckman.
With the loss of a limb, an amputee has a whole different sense of balance, said Walter Reed occupational therapist Josef Butkus.
Therapy for amputees begins at the hospital and may also take Soldiers to skiing and fishing events hosted by such organizations as the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It means a lot for people to get back up and do the things they did before losing a limb, said Mr. Butkus. "The focus is on getting these people to function independently again."
Mr. Michael Norris is the assistant editor of the Pentagram newspaper at Fort Myer, Va,