AMELIA, Ohio — On a small farm in Amelia, Ohio, and down a long driveway sits Brushy Creek Reserve. It’s the creation of Steve Claiborne, who took the step to give veterans an outlet to a different form of treatment and self-teaching.
“It's like that mirror. You get to look into the horse's eyes, and it's a window to your own soul,” said Claiborne.
He said that mirror helps veterans dealing with behavioral issues tied to their combat service to better see themselves.
“They will learn that if I treat this horse with impatience, anger and that sort of thing, that horse is not going to come near me. It's never going to bond with me,” Claiborne said. “However, if I overcome the demons that dictate my behavior, I'll see that reflect in the horse's behavior towards me. And that might be five, six, ten sessions in, and they may say, 'Oh, I get it now.'”
Army veteran James Bear dealt with combat nightmares from his deployment to Iraq. Like so many combat veterans before him, navigating a post-service life full of a variety of treatments from the VA and life hurdles that didn’t understand his mindset or military experience led to bigger issues.
“I've struggled legally, have struggled mentally, have struggled… you name it,” Bear said.
That struggle eventually led to his encounter with Steve Claiborne at Veteran Court in Warren County, Ohio.
“I say, 'You're going to do everything here that I do. And that means if you're shoveling poop, you're shoveling poop. If we’re fixing a stall, we’re fixing a stall,'” Claiborne explained. “And in there, we're going to train horses, too. But there's always conversation going on.”
Claiborne is quick to point out that while this type of interaction is labeled as equine therapy, he’s no therapist -- the horses are the ones doing the work.
“They're like a giant mirror,” said James Bear. "It's like, even if you don't realize that you're in a bad mood, or you're, you're being edgy, or whatever emotion you're showing, you can see it in the horses. They reflect it right back at you."
Bear said that reflection and realization is helping him adjust his own behavior when he is away from the barn. The barn setting itself lends itself to a less clinical environment that puts Bear at ease over treatments at the VA.
The isolation during the pandemic, Bear said, exacerbated his personal journey through treatment for post-traumatic stress tied to his service. He said being introduced to the horses and this form of teaching has helped him in the short time he’s been doing it.
“I mean, don't get me wrong. I still got my bad days and everything, but that's the great thing about this, is Steve always says this is his happy place,” Bear said. “This is my happy place. I mean, Steve told me, anytime day or night, I'm having a bad time, I need to come hang out with the horses. Come on down.”
“You can see that he's taken an active role, and I didn't see that before,” Claiborne said. "So, he really, really enjoys the time here, and he tries to keep his eyes open, to see what needs to be done to help out."
Aside from the horses, Claiborne relates to veterans like James Bear through his own diagnosis of PTSD and his own war experience as a crew chief on a Huey helicopter in the Vietnam War charged with retrieving downed helicopters.
“I can empathize and sympathize with the veterans, because I've been there," Claiborne said. "I've done everything they've done, experienced everything. So, self-medicate, you know, anger, whatever. It's just everything. So I can see it when they walk in the barn, what kind of mood they're in today. Just like the horse can sense your mood when you walk into the stall.”
He said, in the end, any veteran who comes through this type of treatment or any other treatment must be willing to put in the work and want to do it for themselves.
“You don't have PTSD or two days. You have PTSD for the rest of your life,” Claiborne said.
He insists the lessons learned in the stalls at the barn are ways to create a life-long approach to being more cognitive of one's behavior, to be able to make changes.
If you’d like to find out more about Brushy Creek Reserve, head on over to their website.