Equine therapy is growing in Fort Wayne with a mission to serve military veterans

There’s something magical about horses, especially for military veterans battling PTSD or other disabilities.

“Horses are prey animals,” says Allison Wheaton, executive director of Summit Equestrian Center. “So when they view the world, they have a totally different perspective than we do, as predators. Their safety and their health is reliant on the fact that they have safe relationships in their herd, and that they're aware of all the different potential dangers, who's in charge, and the leadership echelon of things.”

Veteran Randal Clemens with horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

These are life skills that combat veterans can relate to—and learn from. Wheaton is hoping to spread this message Oct. 9, during an event called Trail to Zero, a 20-mile horse ride from the East side of Fort Wayne to the Veterans Memorial Shrine and Museum at 2122 O’Day Rd.

Trail to Zero is a national program started in 2017 by Meggan Hill-McQuenney, COO of BraveHearts Equine Therapy in Poplar Grove, IL. The events comprise of military combat veterans riding horses through 20 miles of trails in major American cities, from New York City to Washington D.C., to Houston, TX.

“BraveHearts rides will bring the overwhelming statistic of 20 veterans committing suicide per day to the forefront of Americans’ minds while also helping to educate veterans and Americans about equine-assisted services and the benefits that it has as an alternative approach to healing,” the website says.

Allison Wheaton and veteran Randal Clemens work together to groom horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

In Fort Wayne, the effort began with Allen County Commission Richard Beck, an avid equestrian tasked with developing local horse trails. Beck

“In Allen County, we have a very significant horse population,” Beck says. “This is about quality of place and economic impact, and it drives up property values.”

As Beck was researching a horse trails project, he encountered BraveHearts and its Trail to Zero while perusing an equine magazine.

“The mission, I immediately fell in love with,” Beck says. “This group's whole mission is to bring awareness to people about the fact that 20 veterans a day are committing suicide and also to raise money to fund these equine therapeutic riding programs across the country.”

Allen County Commissioner Richard Beck is an avid equestrian tasked with developing local horse trails.

Trail to Zero events usually take place in big cities, and when Beck first contacted Hill-McQueeney, she declined, citing lack of critical mass in Fort Wayne. But after the Veterans Memorial Shrine and Museum unveiled its replica of the Vietnam Wall, Beck tried again. This time, Hill-McQueeney agreed, and the process began to make it happen.

“By the end of the first meeting, we had determined that we had a lot of common interests and were like-minded in our mission and really enjoyed working with the handful of veterans and horsemen who were from the Fort Wayne area,” says Hill-McQueeney. “We really thought it would be a perfect fit. The last year has been extremely positive and proactive. It’s been an honor to work with all of the people who serve on our committee.”

Allison Wheaton rides horse Belle and veteran Randal Clemens rides horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

With the help of the Allen County Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department, Beck was able to design a 20-mile trail for the riders. He also worked out other logistics, like security, escorts for the procession, and permits.  

The trail will start at Emmanuel Lutheran Church on Wayne Trace and Emmanuel roads. From there, riders will take Tillman Road and go across Calhoun Street to Indiana Tech’s Warrior Park, which will be the group’s first bio-break stop. Then they’ll head up Calhoun Street to Parkview Field and have lunch at Silver Parking Lot. Mission BBQ has agreed to provide the lunches, and booths from various community organizations will be set up.

“We have more than 20,000 veterans in Allen County alone,” Beck says. “And the hope is to have everyone come out somewhere along the 20-mile trail and observe what's going on.”

Allison Wheaton rides horse Belle and veteran Randal Clemens rides horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

After meandering downtown after lunch for a bit, the riders head back out toward Main Street, go to Lindenwood Nature Preserve, and up to the University of St. Francis. Finally, they’ll take Spring Street to Bass Road and end at the Veterans Shrine.

Beck and Wheaton hope this historic ride will be the first of many annual events of this type in Fort Wayne. Wheaton would like to see local equestrian culture continue to expand, particularly as residents seek mental health care during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Growing up, she often found peace and solace by going to her neighbor's horse barn, riding horses and cleaning stalls.

“That kind of became my refuge, growing up,” she says. “I was able to have a safe place to go and safe relationships to kind of figure out the communication stuff and all the body language stuff on my own. And it just, it gave me some really wonderful friendships growing up and a really good sense of self.”

Veteran Randal Clemens grooms horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln

After a career in aviation, Wheaton felt her life lacked meaning, so she started volunteering with a therapeutic riding program and went on to earn her instructor certification. She founded the Summit Equestrian Center at 10808 La Cabreah Ln. in 2010 as a place to share what horses brought to her growing up and provide that to more people in the community.

“It's so powerful, and it just draws you right in,” she says. “That little bit of vulnerability with a little bit of self-preservation, a little bit of all these different things together, and you can see that strength. As a person, you're like, “Oh, I get it now. I get why vulnerability is a strength.”

Allison Wheaton rides horse Belle and veteran Randal Clemens rides horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

The hyper-vigilance seen in wild horses looks a lot like how PTSD and anxiety can feel to humans. Thus, in equine therapy programs for veterans, the veteran and trainer are able to address and practice different coping skills, oftentimes having difficult discussions revolving around horses and riding, which have transferrable benefits for the veteran’s own life.

“We're talking about Rando (the horse) needs to do to be able to live with humans and to go out of the herd and to be able to be caught and cared for,” Wheaton says. “But it's the same skills that our veterans need to be able to go to the grocery store and feel safe.”

Veteran Randal Clemens with horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

Wheaton gets excited talking about Fort Wayne’s first Trail to Zero event. She has deep admiration for Hill-McQueeney.

“This gal is a mover and a shaker,” she says. “I'm so impressed by her. I went to a workshop on how to run a veterans’ program at her facility. She is just really good about sharing what she's had success with.”

All of Summit Equestrian Center’s horses are rescues or others that have been donated. None of the animals have specific training. Neither do the riders. Wheaton estimates the hard costs to get the horses and riders properly geared up will be about $15,000, which she is trying to raise through donations.

“I had three saddles that kind of fit, and then upon evaluation, they really didn't fit,” she says. “To do a ride of this size, you have to make sure that it's like walking with shoes that don't fit. Might as well go barefoot.”

Allison Wheaton rides horse Belle and veteran Randal Clemens rides horse Mojo at Summit Equestrian Center, 10808 La Cabreah Ln.

In the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report published in November 2020, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says, “The average number of veteran suicides per day rose from 16.6 in 2005 to 17.6 in 2018. From 2017 to 2018, the average number of veteran suicides per day rose from 17.5 to 17.6.”

In its Cost of War research series, Boston University published a paper June 21 titled “High Suicide Rates among United States Service Members and Veterans of the Post 9/11 Wars” by Thomas Howard Suitt, III. In the paper, Suitt estimates “30,177 active duty personnel and veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide, significantly more than the 7,057 service members killed in post-9/11 war operations.”

Suitt attributes these staggering statistics to the post-9/11 era “rise of improvised explosive devices (IED), the attendant rise in traumatic brain injuries (TBI), the war’s protracted length, advances in medical treatment that keep service members in the military longer, and the American public’s disinterest in the post-9/11 wars.”

Horses can help military veterans battling PTSD or other disabilities.

Locally, Wheaton is working to reduce veteran suicide through her equine therapy programs. However, cost continues to be a barrier.

She offers her equine therapy free to veterans, but the cost is typically $350 per person for a six-week program. Saddles can easily cost more than $1,000 a piece, plus helmets and other tack, as well as upkeep of the horses.

To help offset the costs, she’ll be holding another fundraiser Nov. 5 called Stock the Barn. People can also donate through the website summitequestrian.org.

Wheaton is determined to see Fort Wayne’s Trail to Zero event succeed and grow in future years, regardless of an ongoing partnership with BraveHearts.

“I want to continue doing this because, number one it's a fantastic goal for us; it gives purpose to our program,” she says. “It gives purpose to the riding.”