STAR opens barn to 'frantic' veterans battling PTSD amid pandemic

Published: May. 7, 2020 at 3:08 PM EDT
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Like most non-profits, COVID-19 has forced a therapeutic riding academy in Lenoir City to temporarily pause sessions for its special needs riders. But there was one group of clients Lynn Petr, Executive Director and Founder of

couldn't close the doors on.

Self-isolation and stay at home orders have proved crippling, even suffocating, for veterans of war who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Petr said about six of STAR's

have called asking for help.

"When you hear the frantic in their voice, we can tell that they’re stressed, they’re reaching out, which is not always typical. The fact that they're reaching out to us opens the door for us to be able to help," Petr said.

PTSD puts veterans at risk of suicide, according to Petr, and the pandemic created an environment that leaves them more fragile.

"It is a dark time. These people dealing with PTSD have demons we’ll never see. When they call and say, 'Can I please have time with my horse?' you’re just going, 'Yes, you can.' They need to be grounded, they need to feel comfortable and safe, and they know that they’re safe here, and they want to get that feeling back. If that’s the only thing we can offer right now, then that’s what we will do," said Petr.

In April, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs announced a concerning uptick in suicides that started at the onset of the pandemic. In a two week period, eight people died from suicide.

In an interview with

, Petr said horses offer veterans an opportunity to focus on the present, not the past. "The horses make you stay in the moment, they’re not worried about yesterday or tomorrow, they’re worried about right now, and you have to be, too, if you’re going to work effectively with them. So much of PTSD is the past, so when they come out here, not only is it calming, they’ve got to lose some of that baggage and live in the moment, and that’s huge."

Petr said veterans are an easy group to accommodate based on social distancing guidelines. Most don't require assistance. They can visit with their horse independently and safely. "So many of our students want to come. At least with the veteran population they’re independent when they come," Petr said.

Petr said STAR hoped to slowly start offering lessons to some of its more independent riders in June.

"We have a lot parents that are chomping at the bit to get their students back out here because being on top of the horse is akin to physical therapy, and these people regress quite quickly when they don’t come out every week to the barn, and for some of them it’s been a long time," said Petr.

She also talked about the struggle all non-profit organizations are facing, including those, like STAR, that rely on fundraising events, "We did get the PPP, which is huge and that’s going to help for the two months, but after that then you’re going, okay now we have some reserves. It’s a challenge, but we’re not the only ones in this boat, but we're just hoping and praying that those who are able and willing will still come to the fore and help."

STAR offers several programs designed to help people through the healing power of horses. The therapeutic riding program serves people of all ages with varying types of special needs. Its Heroes and Horses program helps veterans with disabilities. Changing Strides caters to at-risk youth, and Minis In Motion uses miniature horses and donkeys for tours at schools and long term care facilities.

STAR has two facilities, one in Lenoir City and another in South Knoxville.

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