By Wendy Sarubbi | June 19, 2012 10:48 am

Six combat veterans opened this month’s Silver Spurs Rodeo by performing in an equestrian therapy drill team, thanks in part to the UCF College of Medicine.

The veterans, who suffered injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, wore their combat fatigues as they put their horses through their moves at the Silver Spurs Arena. As the ceremony closed with the National Anthem, the heroes, atop their horses, saluted the flag. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. All I could do was cry,” said Dr. Manette Monroe, assistant dean of students, who helped create Horses and Heroes, a partnership that uses horses to help physically and mentally disabled combat veterans.

Dr. Monroe, a lifelong horsewoman, is spearheading an effort to develop a national therapeutic riding center in Osceola County. This spring, she teamed up with Heavenly Hoofs, a nationally accredited equine-assisted therapy program, and S.A.D.L.E.S. of Umatilla to begin an eight-week series of therapeutic classes for veterans.

Equestrian therapy is a relatively new way to treat veterans with combat-related brain injuries, amputations and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Monroe has conducted early scientific research on the equestrian therapy and the results have been dramatic and encouraging. Some veterans went from being severely depressed to having minimal levels of depression, on par with what non-depressed patients experience. The veterans found comfort, strength, confidence and hope in working as a team — with each other and their horses. The trusting relationship they developed with their horse partner extended into other parts of their lives. They reported feeling more confident, motivated, accepted and social. They responded more positively to others and reacted more calmly in stressful situations. Veterans who are amputees said riding improved their balance and core strength, allowing them to move more purposefully, confidently and gracefully.

The veterans ride at county-provided space at Osceola Heritage Park. Because the area is not covered, therapy must end during the hot, rainy summer. Dr. Monroe and the equestrian therapy groups are working with Osceola County to develop a covered, purpose-built facility near Lake Nona’s medical city. If approved, the center would be the first in the nation to be built from the ground up in partnership with a medical school and could conduct extensive scientific research on equestrian therapy.

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