U.S. Air Force veteran Stephen Civiello's first horse ride on a ranch east of Clovis on Saturday is part of the ongoing effort to help him heal.
Civiello, 63, who suffered three head injuries after his military service, was among about 10 veterans who participated in the equine therapy.
"I felt such a freedom from my stresses, anxiety and worries," said the Fresno resident, who served in the Air Force from 1970-74.
Putting veterans on horseback at the Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch is a part of the Fresno's Veterans Administration hospital treatments for veterans recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, said Remy Sanchez, a hospital speech therapist.
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Riding improves veterans' memories and their problem-solving, cognition and balance skills, she said. It also builds self-confidence and social skills, she said.
"They feel comfortable here," Sanchez said.
Army medic veteran Lauralee Huber, 32, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said she never would have imagined a few months ago drumming up the courage to ride a horse again after 15 years.
She said she thoroughly enjoyed her equine therapy Saturday.
"I felt so free from my anxiety," said the Visalia resident, who served in Iraq in 2005-06.
Angel Gomez, a 26-year-old Marine veteran also from Visalia who has a traumatic brain injury, said the equine therapy helps his posture and strengthens his legs.
Gomez, who served in Iraq in 2004-05, lost most of the use of his right arm and leg from an improvised explosive device.
Horseback riding is "fun, and it helps me," he said.
The equine therapy complements other VA hospital services, said Dawn Golik, hospital spokeswoman.
"You can see the patients are relaxed, and they're socializing with other people," she said.
The free equine therapy is available to the veterans through the generosity of Guy and Carey Adams, who lease the 20-acre ranch. The therapy also is used for children with autism, Down's syndrome and cerebral palsy.
The couple's air-conditioning company went out of business about a year and a half ago, a casualty of the bad economy.
The Adamses rely on donations to fund the horse ranch, though Guy Adams does air-conditioning work on the side to assist with expenses.
"We started looking for something to do, and God just put us out here," he said. "It's very rewarding."