This type of therapy and support has a lot of horse power behind it — literally.
And for veterans returning home from service and combat, being on the back of a horse could be just the kind of help and friendship they need.
Ironstone Farm continues to support veterans with horseback riding therapy and other services and is now building a home for those veterans to stay when coming to the 19-acre Lowell Road farm for retreat weekends and other programs.
At a ceremony last week, Ironstone supporters, volunteers and staff gathered to celebrate the new home’s progress, and also a $50,000 donation from Raytheon, a big supporter of what the farm does to help veterans and others of all ages with varying degrees of disability or challenges.
Raytheon’s Employee Veterans Network not only provides financial support, but volunteers are helping build the new farmhouse retreat.
For the veterans, being at the farm can offer simple solace interacting with the resident horses, either riding, or just being near the animals.
“They relax here. It’s respite,” said Neil Fater, Ironstone marketing director. “That’s why having this house is so important.”
The farmhouse is the original, but will grow and be renovated into a larger, 14-bedroom facility, Fater said.
Ironstone was founded in 1960 as a facility for thoroughbred horses but later, through the vision of founder Richard Donovan, became a place to share with and support people with challenging disabilities through therapeutic riding sessions. That vision led to the formation of a nonprofit, Challenge Unlimited, that took control of the farm in 2001 to ensure children and adults continued to benefit from the therapy and farm programs.
That included veterans returning home from military service, transitioning back to civilian life and often finding themselves needing support in various ways, even on the back of a horse.
Ironstone, with its 35 horses in residence, may see up to 1,500 clients per year, with 200 volunteers also at the farm to assist with therapeutic riding and other educational, recreational and life-skill programs.
Ages of those taking to the back of a horse can range from toddler up to an 80-year-old.
Fater said therapists bring their clients — cancer survivors, at-risk teens, children with special needs, elders suffering from memory issues, and veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorders — to Ironstone to spend time with horses, whether just gently walking alongside, or eventually climbing into the saddle. It’s about gaining trust, and learning acceptance and self-discovery.
“It’s a mutual connection,” Fater said. “Horses can sense people’s emotional state.”
For veterans, being on the back of a horse can be life-changing for someone coming back from the military and needing to adjust to regular life among family and friends.
They come to Ironstone from local veterans hospitals and programs, or may be homeless and want to turn their lives around, Fater said. Veterans also volunteer at the farm in a variety of ways.
The farm expects to offer 19 weekend retreats to more than 340 veterans and their families this year.
The program Home Base Veteran and Family Care has also sent hundreds of veterans and their families to Ironstone this year during immersive weekend retreats.
Armand Hunter, Home Base associate director of veteran outreach and peer support, said his organization welcomes veterans from across the nation to take part in programs at the farm.
“We take them to Ironstone. They spend the weekend to recharge their batteries,” Hunter said. “Some ride, some don’t.”
Shelby Baecker, retired commander in the U.S. Navy and now a Raytheon employee, said the farm and its veterans programs have meant a lot to him as he returned back to civilian life last year after serving 20 years in the military.
Being back on the home front is often a big challenge, Baecker said. For him, it was adapting to family life again and his two small children.
Baecker served seven overseas deployments, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan. He offered thoughts during last week's ceremony, saying the new veterans house will offer a safe haven for generations to come.
“Some of the things we bring back home may be a little difficult,” he said, adding that at Ironstone he feels like he’s found a family and place to grow.
“It helped me understand what it means to come home,” Baecker said.
When Baecker climbs on the back of a horse, it’s a two-way street where respect and relationships are built.
The animal can sense emotions, the physical heartbeat of its rider, and when in perfect concert, both rider and horse can share a sense of emotional peace and contentment, Baecker said.
“And I think of myself as a reflection of the therapy animal,” he said.
Ironstone Executive Director Deedee O’Brien said the farm’s partnership with Raytheon has made the dream of providing a safe home for veterans a reality.
“The keyword is partnership,” O’Brien said. “We have a common goal. They give so much for us.”