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Disabled Veterans Find their Freedom on Horseback

Jul 24, 2014

It has been said that in riding a horse, we borrow freedom. This is especially true for riders at an Odessa farm that uses gentle giants to foster physical and emotional growth.  For our series Off the Base, WUSF intern Tessa Wiseman took a trip to the farm to meet the team of humans and horses behind the healing.

Entrance to Quantum Leap Farm
Credit Tessa Wiseman / WUSF News

Pulling onto Woodstock Road in bucolic northwest Hillsborough, I can almost feel Mother Nature inviting me to step away from the stress of everyday life and succumb to the peace of the land around me. That is exactly what visitors do at Quantum Leap Farm. It was founded in 2000 to provide horse therapy to the mentally and physically handicapped. The non-profit farm serves injured veterans and military members, kids and adults with special needs, and children with cancer.

Quantum Leap founder Edie Dopking is a self-described "horsey girl." She says horses have a way of reading the rider's emotions, and acting accordingly.

"If you're not feeling particularly confident, and maybe some insecure or down emotionally or that kind of thing, they can be so kind and so generous," she says. "It is absolutely amazing to me that they know what you need and when you need it. They're just amazing creatures."

Sonic--an affectionate brown Appaloosa is Mark Lalli's favorite.

"I have seen more counselors,  more psychiatrics, more psychologists than I care to count in the past five years, and none of them could do for me in seven days what an hour on the back of a horse can do," he says.

After a helicopter accident in the Army left him with a traumatic brain injury, Lalli took part in the farm's physical therapy sessions to improve his balance and coordination. In the process, he says, he has found a family.

A harness is used to lift disabled riders onto a horse
Credit Tessa Wiseman / WUSF News

"In the military we all called each other brothers and sisters because we were in harms way and we were dependent on each other to survive throughout the next mission, the next day. The people out here have really adopted me as a brother and really just...I feel like I can be myself out here. I don't have to hide behind any walls."

It isn't just injured veterans who feel at home at Quantum Leap. Ingrid Van Thaden, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, says her riding sessions at Quantum Leap have transformed her disability into ability.

"Part of what people learn with horseback riding is it focuses in the abilities you have, not on what you might have lost or never had," she says. "So, you might not be able to walk perfectly, but when you're on the horse you can ride just like everybody else."

While I didn't get to ride a horse--I did get to feed some. Operations Coordinator Mary Diana took me out to the pastures where the horses wander lazily through the farm's ten rolling acres.

"Idaho, Idaho (kiss kiss). Come here...come on. Come here my girl. Munch, munch, munch"

Diana says the horses are taught to be respectful of their precious, and often fragile, cargo.

"We serve everybody, I mean it's from tiny babies...doctors refer to us a lot," she says. "All the way up to, we have a 92 year old World War II veteran."
 

Workers shod a horse
Credit Tessa Wiseman / WUSF News

Lee Nelson is a retired Army chaplain who first came to Quantum Leap after a six-month stint in a hospital. He is paralyzed from the waist down from a service-related motor vehicle accident in Italy. To get on his horse, he uses a hanging chair that lifts him from the mounting ramp into the saddle.

"It changes your whole perspective," he says. "Instead of looking at hospital walls, you're looking at the real world. And that's...healing in many ways."

There is no denying that Quantum Leap is a place of healing--and studies have shown that equine therapy is effective with improving physical and mental abilities. But during my stay at the farm, I found reason to believe that the work there affects more than just the body and mind--it lifts the spirit as well.