After a devastating injury four years ago, Army veteran Bucky Johnson assumed her horse-riding days were over.
The noncombat-related injury at Fort Bragg left Johnson, 47, without the use of her legs. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
Once a championship horse rider, Johnson thought she had put that part of her life behind her. But on a sunny morning at the Prancing Horse Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship, Johnson was once again in the saddle.
Johnson’s husband, Don Johnson, pushed his wife’s wheelchair up a metal ramp outside a dirt track. Along with instructor Susan Price, Don Johnson lifted his wife onto Charlie, a quarter horse-paint mix.
Then Johnson was off and riding, with Price by her side to help lead the horse through its paces.
For veterans like Johnson, as well as people from other walks of life, the act of riding a horse can provide both physical and mental therapy.
Where to go riding
The Cape Fear region offers plenty of opportunities for novice and expert horseback riders and most skill levels in-between. Here are a few places to saddle up:
Riders say they experience a decrease in stress and a feeling of well being they can’t find anywhere else. They say it can help with issues including stress, anxiety and even attention-deficit disorder.
“It’s a fantastic tool to get people like me out doing things, living again,” said Angela Frye, an Army veteran with injuries related to her service in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We forget sometimes that life does go on.”
Prancing Horse Center was founded in 1984 by Ronnie Meltzer. Based in Southern Pines, it offers programs at a few Moore County locations, including Seven Lakes Stable in Seven Lakes.
The center offers courses for students, children of active-duty military personnel and veterans. The veterans program is called Freedom Reins.
Judy Lewis, executive director of Prancing Horse, said the center doesn’t tout its programs as a cure. But she said the activity involved in riding and controlling a horse can be therapeutic for conditions as varied as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and even autism.
“The motion of the horse requires you to use your core body to stay balanced,” Lewis said. “It strengthens your core, which provides better balance.”
Perhaps harder to gauge, but still of benefit to many people, are the mental benefits that can come from horseback riding.
Johnson, who suffered spinal cord injuries, said she spent much of her early life on horses. She described herself as an “Olympic-level rider.”
After her accident, Johnson thought she would never ride again.
Johnson, who lives in Spring Lake, started attending programs at Prancing Horse about a year ago. She described her first time on a horse post-accident as “nerve-wracking.”
Eventually, with the help of her instructors, Johnson said she began feeling better about being in the saddle. She said the experience made her feel optimistic about her chances of one day being able to walk again.
Don Johnson agreed the sessions have helped his wife mentally and physically. He said it took her some time to find the right saddle and to learn to use a riding crop.
“When you lose your legs, it’s a different world,” Don Johnson said. “It got her soul back, I would say.”
Debbie Crocker also has seen the benefits horseback riding can provide. She teaches children to ride and take care of horses at her DnR Farms in Cedar Creek.
Crocker said patience is a necessity when dealing with horses. That can help children who struggle with attention deficit disorder or similar conditions.
“I find when the children are working with these animals, they connect with them,” Crocker said.
Haley Parker, 17, agrees with that. The Hope Mills teen said she knew right away that she loved riding.
“The first time I ever got on one, it was just a connection. Ever since then, it’s just been relaxing,” she said. “It’s just you and the horse. It’s nothing else.”
Katie McLemore, 15, also rides at DnR Farms. She said riding horses has helped her deal with anxiety.
While getting on a horse was daunting at first, Katie said she has come to look forward to her time at the farm.
“It’s really calming and really fun sometimes,” she said. “It helps me relax.”
Amber Holden, 23, is Crocker’s daughter. She said horseback riding provides a release from her busy life as a full-time college student and restaurant server.
“I guess when I’m on the horse I find a peace,” Holden said. “There’s a connection between you and the horse. You try not to worry about what’s going on around you.”
Angela Frye was wrapping up an hourlong session recently at Prancing Horse. Frye, who said she is medically retired with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as physical injuries, came to the program through the Wounded Warriors program.
Frye said she had never ridden a horse before enrolling in the program. Now, she said, she looks forward to the sessions.
“I’ve found something I enjoy. It gets me out, it pushes my comfort level,” she said. “It’s a few minutes of serenity and peace. OK, an hour of it.”