EAU CLAIRE - Equine-assisted therapy changed Dave Jeske's life.
An Eau Claire resident and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Jeske was "very much into the VA system" when he took a chance on Trinity Equestrian Center's therapy program for veterans.
After three years of talking with mental health professionals and taking medications, he'd hit a wall.
"I needed something more. It only took me so far," he said. "I'm always looking to improve. Trinity … took treatment a step further."
Horse lovers understand the emotional connection that develops between horse and rider. Jeske didn't, but he figured the free program was worth a shot.
He has learned a horse's actions can mirror human emotions.
In counseling sessions, "Feelings come out, but it's not tangible," said Jeske. "Working with the horse made it tangible."
Toni Mattson is one of the "trinity" of owners at Trinity Equestrian Center.
A lifelong horse owner and certified equine specialist, she operates the nonprofit with her husband, William, and sister, Jan Behm. They provide equine assisted psychotherapy, therapeutic riding, Parelli Natural Horsemanship and prayer therapy.
"This form of therapy is not recreational," Mattson said. "It's not about learning to ride horse or horsemanship in general. It's a fully certified and licensed therapy program that delivers astounding outcomes."
Since October 2009, Trinity has provided more than 600 free therapy sessions to about 40 returning veterans in eight counties surrounding Eau Claire.
Appreciation and family heritage prompted the endeavor, which they have titled Operation WE CARE.
"We have a long family history of military service going back to our grandfather in World War I, our mom and dad in World War II, my husband, our brothers, uncles, cousins," Mattson said.
Her father served in Germany, Italy and Africa. Having witnessed his struggle with recurring malaria and post-traumatic stress disorder, she understands war's long-term impact on service members and their families.
"Our inspiration comes from our extreme respect and admiration for our country's veterans, our affection and confidence in our horses and treatment team and the privilege we feel as we enter this journey of healing with the veteran," she said.
Celebrated for their effectiveness in physical therapy, horses are equally useful in healing the emotions, Mattson said. Naturally hypervigilant, they form a bond with veterans who learned the same behavior to survive combat.
Unlike therapeutic riding, equine-assisted psychotherapy does not require mounted riding. One of the first steps is for the veteran to reach out and lay a hand on the horse.
Because horses are so sensitive to danger, they will only permit the touch if the person's anxiety levels are under control. Despite how badly clients want to create that bond, it often takes a while to establish.
Breathing deeply, with one hand on the horse and eyes closed, combat-stressed clients relax and lower their defenses. This is where the journey to wellness begins.
"Some people don't say a word," she said. "Sometimes they talk. Sometimes they sob. The big, sturdy walls … that people who've suffered trauma build around themselves for protection begin to melt away."
On average, veterans attend weekly sessions for about 12 weeks. Therapy is designed to be short-term and solution-based; Jeske is one of the program's unofficial graduates.
"There are routine assessments we do along the way to determine the therapeutic progress that is being made and if the individual has regained their emotional footing and has accomplished their individual treatment goals," Mattson said. "Helping them find their 'new normal' and discovering new coping skills to manage these changes is one of our biggest goals."
The human-equine connection leads to a relationship and, finally, to trust. Armed with the accomplishment, veterans can generalize those emotional skills to improve other areas of their lives - work, family, school, faith.
"The heart of a horse seeks to connect. Their intention is one of affection, belonging and service," she said. "Because of this, they are incredible teachers and perfect instruments of change."
"It's just so unique," Jeske said of the program. "Trinity really helped me to grow."
Soldiers are not the sole beneficiaries. The center's therapy services are available to people with a range of emotional, physical and developmental disorders, from traumatic brain injuries and attention deficit disorder to depression and multiple sclerosis.
Frequent fundraisers, community sponsorships and donations from locals and veterans organizations support the program. The next fundraiser, a tack and craft sale, is 9 a.m .to 3 p.m. Dec. 1 at the center, S5300 State Highway 37, Eau Claire.
"We are pursuing a partnership with the federal and state VA and larger VA grants," she said. "I wish I could say that offering our therapy to our veterans for free is sustainable, but I just can't. We need to be even more creative and diligent in securing funding sources."
For returning troops, the mission has never been more timely. A veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, according to a study published last month by the Center for A New Security. The Associated Press reported in the first half of 2012, more soldiers on active duty committed suicide than were killed in combat.
Nationwide, veterans' need for mental health services is increasing. In the Chippewa Valley, Trinity is expanding its program to meet local need.
"We're celebrating our 10th anniversary this year," she said. "Because our veteran program is growing and consequently encroaching more on our only indoor arena space, we have decided to repurpose our 40-by120-foot canopy by enclosing it and converting it to another indoor arena.
The new space will be christened the Veteran's Wellness Center.