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NDSU Veterans Ed program adds horsemanship course

Faculty in North Dakota State University's Equine Science and Veterans Educational Training programs have teamed up to offer a horsemanship component as part of VET's summer coursework.

VET is a state-funded program that's available at no cost to veterans. The program is designed to prepare individuals academically for post-secondary education and ease their transition into life in higher education.

Jeri Vaudrin, VET project coordinator, and Erika Berg, associate professor of animal science, began brainstorming ways to incorporate equine work into veterans programming in 2013. The result was a small pilot project that began this summer.

Berg and co-instructors Carrie Hammer, associate professor and Equine Science program director, and Tate Eck, Equine Science lecturer, teach the two-hour, weekly horsemanship course at the NDSU Equine Center. The 10-week program focuses on basic horsemanship skills and incorporates weekly reflection questions into writing assignments that fulfill the course's English requirements.

"But the course is more than simply learning about horses and fulfilling academic requirements," Berg says. "It provides student veterans with an opportunity to more fully engage in their surroundings, connect with the horses and, consequently, people."

Vaudrin notes that many of the veterans VET serves have a diagnosis of post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other traumatic brain injuries.

"Traumatic experiences reduce an individual's sense of safety and trust, resulting in social isolation and detachment," Vaudrin says. "Being in a state of constant anxiety and becoming easily angered are often seen as well."

Course instructors conduct brief self-assessments before and after each class to help participants rate their mood, anxiety level and physical pain.

"Horses provide immediate, nonjudgmental feedback to people," Berg says. "Plus, horses live in the moment because their survival depends on it. The idea that about 95 percent of their communication is through body language makes them especially tuned in, not only to what other horses are doing, but what every living being around them, including human beings, is doing. These attributes make many horses outstanding partners for this type of work."

Knowing that participants have reported improvements in their mood and anxiety levels after almost every class has been exciting, she adds.

Efforts are underway to expand the horsemanship programming.

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