Standing in line at the grocery store one day, Army veteran Adam Halloran was so filled with rage that he bit down on his lip hard enough to draw blood. “I didn’t like how a customer was speaking to the cashier,” he explains. “But you can’t just fight someone in the grocery line.”
Making the transition back to civilian life was difficult, and Halloran often found that everyday situations filled him with anger. “I swore an oath to protect people,” he says, “but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was just angry, all the time. And I found poor ways to cope.”
That was years ago. These days, the man who once relentlessly pursued risky situations now enjoys more tranquil pastimes: gardening, playing with his cat, doing pottery with his niece, and spending time at the barn.
“It’s all thanks to horses,” he says. “They saved my life.”
By 2019, Halloran had spent a decade on the path to self-destruction. After an honorable discharge from the Army, a prescription for painkillers spiraled into substance abuse fueled by unlucky genetics and the invisible scars of military service.
Paranoia, depression, PTSD, and self-medication led him to places he “wouldn’t wish on anybody.” It was a dark chapter of self-isolation, delusions, addiction, and time on the streets. “I went from one battleground to another,” he says.
Ultimately, after a mental breakdown, Halloran admitted himself to the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center in his hometown of Albany, New York. It was a decision that changed the trajectory of his life. There, he joined an inpatient behavioral health and substance abuse program, and through the program was introduced to State University of New York (SUNY) Cobleskill’s Therapeutic Horsemanship Program and the healing power of horses.
The campus’ equestrian center, home of the Therapeutic Horsemanship Program, is a peaceful place. Horses graze on lush pastures bisected by white fences, and green hills swell hazily in the distance. For Halloran, the sense of belonging—and hope—was instantaneous. He’d always loved horses from afar, but now he was able to interact with them up close. As a child, he had dreams of becoming a cowboy; in upstate New York, this was as close as you could get.
The horses offered Halloran a brand of emotional support that had eluded him.
“I’m a big guy. Bigger than most,” he says. “So I’ve always been the one holding people up. But there was never anyone strong enough—big enough—to hold me up. The horses, though, they’re big enough. I can hug them and cry on them and lay on them and they are big enough to hold me up.”
Through the Therapeutic Horsemanship Veterans Program, mental health, psychotherapy, and heavy emotional work intertwine with mucking stalls, grooming sessions, and measuring feed. “Through learning about horses, the veterans are learning about themselves,” says Marny Mansfield, director of the Therapeutic Horsemanship Program at SUNY Cobleskill. By the end of the program, veterans report an appreciable increase in mood and a decrease in anxiety and anger, says Mansfield.
For Halloran, working with the horses has provided a new lease on life.
“I’m not a morning person,” he laughs, “but when I’m out there at 6:30 in the morning mucking stalls, all I feel is tranquility, purpose, and accomplishment. My commitment to the horses holds me accountable and responsible. I help them get through their day and they help me get through mine.”
Standing in the cool light of morning, muck fork in hand, Halloran has come a long way from the person who used to staple his curtains closed because he couldn’t bear the thought of facing daylight.
The horses made such an impression on Halloran that he didn’t want to leave at the end of the six-week program. He extended his participation to 10 weeks. Then he came back as a volunteer. Then he came back as a peer advocate for the veteran’s program. And finally, he came back as a student.
In addition to offering equine-assisted services to the public, SUNY Cobleskill is one of the few colleges in the country that offers a degree track in the field. Graduates receive a Bachelor of Technology in Therapeutic Horsemanship and can also minor in Equine-Assisted Services. The coursework spans from equine science and business management to psychology and early child development, giving students a comprehensive depth of knowledge and strong foundation. Students can also work toward completing their therapeutic riding instructor certification through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
“This is a growing field,” says Mansfield. “Recognizing the need for alternative types of activities and interventions like equine-assisted services is the direction that healthcare seems to be going.”
Today, Halloran has been sober for two years and is on the path to getting his degree and becoming a therapeutic horsemanship instructor. He wants to help others through horses as he was helped.
“Horses can heal so many,” he says. “I swore an oath to help people, and when I got out of the military, I didn’t know how to do that. Now I do. This is how I can heal. This is how I can help others heal.”
SUNY Cobleskill’s Therapeutic Horsemanship Program was the winner of Hope in the Saddle’s 2020 Tack Room Makeover prize package!
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