WELLSVILLE CANYON, Utah — When he was on combat deployment in the Marine Corps, Justin Bishop saw the worst of the worst images from the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Bishop developed post-traumatic stress disorder — experiencing nightmares, sleepless nights, hyper-vigilance and depression. But because of "the culture and stigma of seeking help," he didn't get treatment until 2008. The Veterans Affairs doctors gave him pills, but they didn't help, Bishop said.
Then, last year, Bishop found horseback riding.
"It makes the world stand still for a second," Bishop said. "I didn't have my mind on past experiences or the friends that I had lost."
Bishop was one of several veterans in a group that took a horseback ride up Wellsville Canyon, reported The Herald Journal. The trail rides are provided through Utah State University Extension and USU's new Equine Activities and Therapies Program.
Karl Hoopes, a USU Extension equine specialist, was one of the people who came up with the idea for the veterans trail ride. The Wellsville Canyon ride was the 11th since the activity started a year ago.
"When they're in the military, they're in a close-knit group; they live together and they fight together," Hoopes said. "When they come back and interact with people who have not been through the same experience, they don't feel part of a close-knit group anymore. These horses help provide a sense of community."
Michelle Weed, USU director of Equine-Human Sciences and professional practice assistant professor, echoed Hoopes' comments.
"A lot of studies show reintegration (into civilian life for veterans) can be an issue, and part of reintegration is rebuilding your community, your support system," Weed said. "So having shared recreation outdoors with horseback riding really does help build a community."
Weed emphasized the trail rides provide therapeutic benefits and are not actual therapy.
"The horse is the problem-solving, it is the movement of the horse, being outdoors in the environment with a group of peers," Weed said.
Hoopes noted many of the veterans who go on the trail rides have never been on a horse before.
"They feel nervousness, but then they accomplish something," Hoopes said. "It's the sense of a group going through something together and accomplishing a goal."
Although the first experience with a horse can be nerve-wracking for those who have never ridden one, Hoopes said, eventually, the veterans begin to trust the horse and develop camaraderie with fellow veterans.
"By the end of the ride, they're relaxing and enjoying themselves, and I think that's one of the benefits that come of (the trail rides)."
Bishop said riding a horse has helped him grow in many ways, including learning to trust people.
"I had to relearn what trust was (after deployment)," Bishop said. "When you're riding on a horse, you have to develop a synergy and a relationship with the horse. That horse trusts me to guide it."
After the ride, a discussion with a certified mental health expert is typically held. Veterans who went on the 90-minute ride spoke with Jared Schultz, director of USU's rehabilitation counseling program.
Schultz spoke with the newspaper after the discussion.
"It's an important part of the ride," Schultz said of his post-ride discussions with veterans. "We're just trying to make sense of what we did. When you're on a horse, you're so immersed in what you're doing, you don't think about how it impacts your life."
Schultz said riding provides veterans "life lessons" and "principles that can impact other elements of your life."
Riding a horse with his fellow veterans, the retired Marine Corps member can finally stop and notice the finer things, like the smell of dew, the wind on his face, the brightness of the sun.
"It was like living in a dream, a dream you don't want to wake up from," Bishop said. "I just took it all in, and when I did that, it just took all of my military experience away."