Accepted and Loved: How Red Barn assists veterans in therapy

Image from theredbarn.org.

For many in Leeds, the Red Barn needs no introduction. But for those who are not aware, they may find that it is one of the staples of the community, being a faith-based therapeutic organization that draws people not only from Leeds but from outside as well.

Red Barn is a non-profit organization that uses equine or horse therapy to work with people who have mental, physical and emotional disabilities or issues. Red Barn serves both children and adults, with a portion of the adults being veterans.

In this day and age, more have become aware of the hardships for some veterans, particularly those returning from overseas after taking part in combat, sometimes having sustained injuries. Oftentimes, the psychological health conditions for some of them manifest in the form of PTSD.

“We have an open and welcome environment where we meet them where they are and introduce them to the horses and let the horses take it from there,” Red Barn Director Joy O’Neal said. “It sounds very simple but it’s actually very complicated. At the same time it’s one simple step but we try not to over think it.

“We just let them come out and know that they’re accepted and loved and have their chance to work with the horses and follow what they’re interested in. For many of the veterans that come out what interest them is redeveloping their relationship with their child and seeing their child grow and thrive.”

The Red Barn has been working with veterans since obtaining its non-profit status in 2012. One of the early supporters and members of the advisory board of the Red Barn was Larry Siegel, who was a veteran himself, having served in the Navy in Panama. Siegel passed away several years ago.

“He just really shared with us his heart to serve veterans,” said Grace Butler, who is the public relations coordinator for Red Barn. “And he had worked with agencies that were similar in working with veterans but a lot of them had counseling and he felt like there needed to be something that was a little more lighthearted in reaching them, giving them a place to reconnect with their families.”

Siegel put together a non-profit that would be a referral service to other counselors willing to work with veterans. Afterwards he was inspired after an article about veterans working with horses and so contacted Red Barn to put them on his referral list.

Although veterans often receive help from therapy groups because of trauma from combat or other situations, they go for a variety of reasons. While Red Barn does assist veterans themselves, O’Neal said that the children of veterans make up a great deal of this aspect.

She said that one of the first referrals was a boy who is the son of a veteran that had been deployed overseas. Using a pseudonym, O’Neal called him Chris and said that while his father was away, he was diagnosed with autism.

Chris and his father faced difficulties in their relationship after Chris’ father came home because the condition was relatively misunderstood.

“It seems silly to say this now – or maybe shocking – but it wasn’t too long ago that the diagnosis of autism was kind of new,” O’Neal said. “They didn’t understand that it was a real thing. It wasn’t that [Chris] needed stronger discipline or he needed to get outside more, it was this is truly who his child would be.”

Chris’ father and mother divorced, and his father began bringing him to the Red Barn where Chris learned to work with horses. Soon they were both working together with the horses and the experience helped them to bond with each other.

The Red Barn also works with veterans in groups for events in addition to one-on-one therapy. The program for veterans and their families has grown since 2012, with some staying on a regular basis to volunteer.

Since coming to the Red Barn for therapy, one of these veterans stayed as a volunteer and has become a well-known part of the community there.

Described as the “one of the happiest” of Red Barn’s volunteers, Kyle Hicks, 34, said he was ranked an E4 in the army and was deployed overseas. However, he was involved in a car accident that left him with permeant damage to him physically and to some of his mental faculties.

Hicks then found the Red Barn, leading him to not only be one of the people that benefitted from the therapy programs but also a volunteer who helps maintain the horses there by grooming, feeding and other tasks.

Hicks said that the intuitive nature of horses as he works with them has been helpful in his therapy, often providing a calming effect due to their gentle temperament. As O’Neal and Butler described, there was a discipline to working with horses that helped in the healing process.

“I’ve never seen a horse get out of sorts or get really angry,” he said. “I’m not over-commanding or have to be in charge but I like being in control and the horse listens to every little micro-movement you make. If you lean back, they think, ‘Okay. Time to halt.’ If you lean to the right, they lean to the right.”

Part of the staff of Red Barn’s desire to help veterans comes from gratitude to their service. The therapy that the organization provides is one of the many ways that the public expresses their thanks for being willing to sacrifice their time and even their own wellbeing to serve in the armed forces.

“I think that when veterans come out – whether with a child or on their own – they feel that we’re not trying to get in their way,” Butler said. “And I think that whenever they come back, there are so many people that are trying to intervene and give them things and do this and do this, and we hope that when they come there they see that we just accept them and thanking them, really.”

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