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October 12, 2012

Take That, Mr. Ed

By Duncan Strauss

As someone who’s long had a soft spot for Mr. Ed, I unapologetically take great delight here in quoting, then paraphrasing, the opening lyrics of that show’s theme song:

A horse is a horse, of course

And no one can talk to a horse of course

That is, of course, unless the horse is one of Dr. Dopking’s therapuetic horses

OK, granted, the third line doesn’t offer a tight rhyme, but the original version didn’t, either.

And in an attempt to further bolster the conection being forged here with the world of this iconic palomino (why am I hearing a chorus of neighs?), Dr. Edie Dopking’s horses deftly flip the “Mr. Ed” paradigm on its side:

In the 1960s televsision series, Ed would speak with only one person, whereas Dopking’s equines don’t talk at all, yet veterans struggling with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other ills find the horses help them speak about a host of hurts they’ve otherwise been unable to express. In a way, inititally, they’re only truly talking with the horses—or through them.

At this point, perhaps it’s entirely appropriate to say Whoa! Followed immediately by, Who the heck is Dr. Dopking?

Dr. Edie Dopkings explains the founding of the non-profit Quantum Leap Farm and its special emphasis on providing horse therapy for veterans, military members and their families.

Dr. Edie Dopking is the founder of Quantum Leap Farm, a therapeutic equestrian program based in Odessa, Florida, not far from Tampa. Therapeutic riding is an emerging, expanding field that involves using horses as a tool to conduct physical and emotional therapy for a wide array of conditions and ailments. And over the course of its 12-year existence, Quantum Leap has helped clients experiencing Parkinson’s, autism, cerebral palsy, Alzheimer’s and Down’s syndrome, among other maladies.

But one component of Quantum Leap Farm’s menu of services that distinguishes it from many other therapeutic equestiran operations—and the component I was particularly interested in discussing with Dopking in our September 12 interview on Talking Animals—is their work helping veterans suffering from PTSD and other wounds of war.

Dr. Edie Dopking

Dopking grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, first sat on a horse at age two, and has been riding ever since. The Edie Dopking Life Story boasts any number of intriguing plot lines (including one phase working as a medical imaging technologist, another phase when she and her then-husband founded a successful medical diagnostic imaging center, yet another when she got her PhD from the University of South Florida in their Aging Research Studies program), but the predominant through-line and theme is her unwavering passion for all things Equestian. So it may make perfect horse sense that a volunteer stint at a therapeutic equestrian program in Tampa, Bakas Equestrian Center, ended up functioning  as a precursor to the birth of Quantum Leap.

“It’s twenty-five-plus years old, and a very high-quality, wonderful program,” Dopking recalled about Bakas, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “They primarily serve kids, although some kids have grown up in that program and they serve some adults too.

“I was lucky enough to get started volunteering there in the early 90s, and volunteered—off and on—for a period of about 10 years, as work allowed me to. And just fell in love with it. That was my introduction to therapeutic riding, and I’ve done an awful lot of things with horses, but I thought that was absolutely the most fun thing I had ever done with horses.”

‘Horses Healing Wounded Warriors’: Quantum Leap Farm exists to enrich and enhance the lives of adults—especially veterans and military members and their familiies–with mental and physical disabilities, by engaging them in a variety of equestrian activities designed to promote and improve physical, mental and social well being. Video is property of VideoArt Productions, Inc. in cooperation with Quantum Leap Farm, Inc.

I’ve barely uttered the observation that the Bakas gig seems to have represented  a profound experience for her when Dopking lets loose another cresting wave of exhilaration.

“I think for me, as a child, riding was something that was great for my self-esteem, my sense of mastery, accomplishment, all that sort of thing. There’s something kind of magical about connecting with an animal that big. I’m amazed that they go along with this whole idea that we’re gonna hop on and they’re going to take us wherever we want to go. They’re so cool and so easygoing–[as the horse]: ‘Well, OK, that seems like a good idea.’ That’s always amazed me.

“So to see a kid or an adult with a disability—especially someone who uses a wheelchair or has a mobility disability—hop on a horse, and all of a sudden, they have legs. And they can pretty easily get that horse where they want it to go. To watch them discover that kind of mobility—horses are great equalizers that way. I’ve had so many people say to me ‘You know, when I’m on this horse, no one would really know I have a disability.’ ”

It was Dopking’s desire to offer that same sense of liberation and joy and healing to a broader constituency at Bakas—and a fortuitious confluence of factors in her life, including the purchase of the 10-acre farm that’s now Quantum Leap—that ultimately spawned the creation of her own therapeutic equestrian juggernaut. “I had a conversation with a guy named Pat Vannetta, who’s still at Bakas. He’s a veteran himself, and I’ve always loved veterans—my dad is World War II vet, fought in New Guinea,” she explained.

“So we had a conversation one day about doing therapeutic riding for veterans. He said they would love to do it at Bakas, but they were so busy, they didn’t have the time. And really, their mission was to serve kids.

“But he kind of planted a seed. He said, ‘You’ve got that great little piece of property up there—why don’t you think of starting a program for adults, and for veterans?’ I chewed on it for a few years, and then when we sold the [diagnostic imaging] business, and thought. ‘If I’m ever going to do it, now is the time. I’ve got a little bit of time on my hands, I’ve got a little bit of money, and I’ve got this farm. It’s time.’”

From GulfCoastCF (Gulf Coast Community Foundation), a visit to Quantum Leap Farm, which is assisting many injured veterans recover through the use of therapeutic and recreational horseback riding programs, in part with a grant from the Florida BRAIVE Fund.

In 2000, that’s exactly what Dopking did. And the nearby James A. Haley Veteran’s Administration Hospital immediately embraced her new program, providing a steady trickle of referrals to Quantum Leap. “So we started working with veterans right from year one. And of course, then when we became involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the floodgates opened. And we really started working with a lot of polytrauma and brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, burn patients, and it’s gone from there.”

Dopking elaborated, explaining that a sizable contingent of Quantum Leap clients were in and around improvised explosive devices (IEDs), so their client pool is flooded with soldiers who’ve sustained brain and spinal cord injuries, burns, amputations and other afflictions impeding the veterans’ mobility.

“Anyone with mobility disability is a good candidate for therapeutic horseback riding,” Dopking said, “because the movement is therapeutic. It models normal human gait. Also, there’s something about the rhythm that helps coordinate muscular coordination and cognition.”

“And those are just the physical aspects. One of the VA’s big pushes is family and community re-integration. Coming back to civilian life can be very uncomfortable for a lot of these guys. I’ve heard many of them tell me they feel more comfortable in-country than they do coming home, because their experiences have been so intense. And things we don’t see, as civilians—it’s really hard for them to explain to us what they’ve been through.”

Scenes from Quantum Leap Farm

And galloping back to the reverse-Mr. Ed exemplar, these invisible wounds of war—these dark, messy, sometimes esoteric obstacles to achieving family and community re-integration—are precisely why the Quantum Leap horses are employed to faciliate a form of talk therapy, providing a singularly comfortable and safe environment for veterans to reveal, often unwittingly, what’s eating them and corroding their marriages.

At Quantum Leap, this primarily revolves around the use of a psycho-social program called At EASE, which stands for Equine Assissted Self-Exploration, a model that was created by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an international organization that certifies mental health professionals to use horses as a therapeutic tool.

At Ease can be implemented for couples counseling, family counseling and group counseling, but perhaps the most compelling need—and perhaps the most compelling results—is with marriages that appear to be on the rocks. Dopking notes that when the service member has been away in combat, especially in the not uncommon scenario where there have been multiple deployments, the spouse has necessarily become highly independent. That represents just one of the important changes the veteran has to adjust to, while the spouse may need to adjust to the veteran grappling with PTSD and other emotional–but not overtly visible–ailments.

“We had this couple come out that had been having some marital problems,” Dopking remembered, by way of portraying At EASE at work. “One of the first things we do is have them walk out in the pasture. We do a little safety talk about horses, that they’re prey animals and how they might defend themselves. And to be thinking like a horse along those lines. We let them choose a horse they want to work with, and then tell us what it is about that horse that makes them want to work with that horse. Is there anything in particular that they find attractive?

A segment on Quantum Leap Farm produced and broadcast by Florida Focus

“So this couple is out there and they’re kind of surveying the horses. We have a horse named Tampa, who is the alpha horse in the herd. So the other horses just give him a lot of room. So, the couple is just kind of looking around at the herd and [pointing at Tampa] she says ‘Well, we don’t want to work with that one, he’s obviously got social issues.’ They’re laughing, and he looks at her and he looks at Tampa and says ‘I think he just needs a little time to himself.’ So immediately, this conversation starts. The horses are metaphors for things going on in people’s lives.

“And the learning is experiential, as well. People’s coping strategies are their coping strategies. So what we do is create novel questions or challenges that make people use their creative thinking, and their coping strategies. So they’re right there to discuss, out in the open. It can be a very brief therapy because of that. It’s one thing to sit in someone’s office and say ‘God, I hate it when my husband does X, Y,  Z.’ But it’s another thing to be right there when it happens, and say ‘OK, how’s that working for you? Does it remind you of anything that happens at home or work? How could you do this better? And let’s try that right here.’”

Often it’s nowhere near that deep into a session, much less a series of sessions, before an inadvertently revealing moment occurs. As we saw before, with the couple battling marital problems, it can happen as early as selecting the horse for the session.

Dopking recounts an ongoing tale of this phenomenon, when a group of vets were regularly sent to Quantum Leap from the mental health intensive care management area of the local VA hospital. “We have a donkey on the property,” she said. “He’s really cute, kinda grey, fuzzy, big ears—the typical donkey. When those guys would come out, especially if there was a new guy, he would always pick the donkey.

TLC goes both ways at Quantum Leap Farm

“So we’d say, ‘What’s so interesting about the donkey?’ They say ‘He’s different from the rest of the herd. He doesn’t fit in with the other horses. He seems lonely.’ There they go with their projecting, because a lot of these guys are Vietnam-era vets who had PTSD. And it’s progressed to things that are more severe, like bipolar disease, schizophrenia, or major depression. So they are what these Iraqi and Afghanistan service members will become if the PTSD is left untreated.”

The enormously encouraging news is that service members in the vicinity of Quantum Leap should not have to worry about their PTSD going untreated. Edie Dopking and her herd of non-talking-but-great-listening horses will see to that.

With help from one ostensibly very outcast, very lonely donkey, who doesn’t exactly have the gift of gab, but seems to cultivate it in others. The donkey’s name is Eugene, but I can’t resist the temptation to call him Mr. Eugene.

Click here to listen to the Talking Animals episode featuring Dr. Edie Dopking:

Click here to visit the Quantum Leap Farm website.

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