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The healing power of horses for St. Louis veterans

The "Saddle Up" Program at the St. Louis VA is helping veterans with anxiety and PTSD

ST. LOUIS — Sometimes the best medicine comes in a dose more than five feet high.

"This is one of the greatest therapies I've ever had in my life," said Lisa Conway.

Welcome to the "Saddle Up" program at the St. Louis VA Medical Center. It's horse therapy for veterans working through depression, anxiety and PTSD.

"It really helps them gain a lot of confidence in themselves," explained Debbie Touchette, a recreational therapist with the Veterans Administration.

"I find the horses soothing and relaxing," Joel Cole told us.

Cole, 33, has been looking for an escape ever since returning from Iraq.

He was a tank driver in the Army who often had to find and clear improvised explosive devices. And there were some close calls. 

"When we drove by one house, two artillery rounds went off that were buried in the ground. You felt the shock go through you," he recalled.

For him, being on the back of a horse is better than being on a therapist's couch.

"It's a good stress reliever," he said.

Conway feels the same way.

She is a Navy veteran who has been in chronic pain since shortly after being discharged. She never even considered horse therapy.

"I'm thinking, 'I can't even stand, how am I going to ride a horse?,'" she remembered.

But, she was lifted onto Rainman the horse and he helped to lift away some of the pain.

"This has been the biggest blessing to me," said Conway. "Because someone who has limited ability to move to get on a horse, you feel pretty damn good about yourself."

What's unique about this program is that the veterans don't have to go to a farm or a stable, the horses actually come here to the VA so more veterans can be served.

Ann Gioia has a business called Medicine Horse and brings the animals to Jefferson Barracks every week.

"My son was in the military and my brothers in the Air Force and so being able to help veterans was really important to me," said Gioia.

She explained that there is something about the gentle, patient nature of a horse that helps rebuild confidence.

"I have problems with anxiety and anger issues and things like that," Army veteran Keith Walker told 5 On Your Side.

That's why Walker volunteered to be part of a trust-building exercise.

"We will blindfold one of our veterans and he will be trusting the speaker to walk him through an obstacle course," explained Touchette.

The goal to help develop openness, understanding and respect.

"I already feel a little better after being here," said Walker.

For these veterans, every step on a horse is a joy ride.

"Well, they have magic powers," laughed Gioia.

Mike Bush's Making a Difference: