EAST MANATEE — The idea of helping wounded war veterans recover their health through a riding therapy program originated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Volunteers at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy wondered why they, too, couldn’t start a Horses for Heroes program locally. So they recently did.
“We really felt there was a need to serve this population after they laid it all on the line for our country,” said Gail Clifton, an instructor at SMART.
The easy part was adding a lift to help vets in wheelchairs take part in driving a horse-drawn carriage or in riding a horse.
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Unexpectedly, the hard part was finding veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan — or in previous foreign wars, including the first Gulf War and the Vietnam War — to participate.
“It just didn’t happen,” Clifton said.
The door opened for Horses for Heroes in an unexpected way when Arthur Bieser, an 87-year-old Navy veteran who served on active duty during World War II and the Korean War, heard about it through his caregiver, Stacy Scott of Palmetto.
Bieser, a University Park resident and retired Navy commander, in his younger days was an avid rider in the St. Louis area.
“It has helped get me out of the house. I feel it has helped sustain my interest in life,” Bieser said.
Being active is important for Bieser, a widower who retired after 40 years of federal service at age 71, and worked for a tax preparation company for a dozen years after that.
Now in a wheelchair, Bieser has been taking lessons at the SMART facility on County Road 675 in East Manatee. Instructor Samantha Toomey has been tutoring Bieser on driving a buggy, pulled by a 13-year old gray Percheron named Sterling. Bieser says he is looking forward to the next step, riding horseback.
Also signing on for the program was Jason Lapek, 34, of Myakka City, who served with the U.S. Army in southern Iraq. Lapek heard about the program through Manasota Operation Troop Support.
“I feel that it has helped me get out and do things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” Lapek said Monday.
Fortunately, neither Lapek nor Bieser were wounded during their military service. “I never got a scratch. I almost feel guilty,” Bieser said.
But their participation in Horses for Heroes make them the pioneers for others now waiting in the wings.
Two veterans with war-related injuries from the Gulf War, including one recovering from a traumatic brain injury, are now being scheduled for riding therapy.
“This program will evolve into whatever it needs to be,” Clifton said.
Part of that evolution is to open the program up to spouses and children of vets, said Bridget Brunson, SMART program director.
The therapy is provided at no charge to the veterans.
All area veterans are invited to participate in Horses for Heroes. This program is funded by area donors, businesses, and local veterans organizations and is provided free of charge to all disabled veterans of any foreign war, according to a SMART flier.
The program is designed to meet each rider’s needs, abilities and progress with benefits of improved muscular strength, coordination, balance, stamina, and self confidence.
For more information about participating in or supporting the program, call (941) 746-1493 or visit www.smartriders.org