After setting a goal to provide veteran care, Stars and Strides Stables has been able to make it a reality partnering with an experienced veterans equine-assisted therapy operator who moved to Parker County from Waco.

Stars and Strides Stables was established by David and Teresa Miller in 2012 and provides therapeutic riding for children and adults with disabilities as well as helping them become effective and competitive equestrians. The non-profit will now join forces with Barbara Epps to provide the same equine-assisted therapy for veterans through the new Stars and Strides Patriots Program.

“The program has been at the forefront of our minds since Stars and Strides started in 2012,” David Miller said. “We’ve always wanted to go into the area of veterans care and as the stables grew we began to truly recognize the need to be able to provide some type of service to those vets that are suffering from PTSD or some other type of trauma-related injury from being in the service.”

The Millers really saw the need when former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Wes Cox, who served in Iraq, started equine therapy at Stars and Strides Stables a couple of years ago.

“Wes came to us suffering from survivors guilt — he served in Iraq and his squad was blown up by an IED [improvised explosive device] — and so we started working with him and the therapy that Stars and Strides provided him saved his life,” Miller said. “That just really captured in our hearts the need to really work on getting this program started.”

Cox said he got out of the military in 2016 and went through a rough time before meeting the Millers.

"I had just gotten out of the military in 2016 with all my injuries and PTSD, and was on all kinds of pain meds. It just created an addiction monster in me and really didn’t fix the issues. I got to a point where I literally was on the verge of committing suicide and I reached out to somebody and they told me I should try equine therapy and gave me David’s number," Cox said. "I had no idea how it was going to turn out. When I got there, David and Teresa opened up their home to me and they immediately got me on a horse."

Cox said he's now back at work as a professional bull rider and also volunteers at Stars and Strides Stables.

"I was told I may not even walk correctly after my accident and here I am riding bulls professionally and volunteering out there," Cox said. "They gave me my life back and the least I can do is try to spread the word."

The Millers met Epps, who was running the REACH equine-assisted therapy facility in Waco, by chance when she moved to the Weatherford area.

“I’m from Waco and I worked and ran a therapeutic riding center for 10 years, and for about seven years we had a veterans program, so I’m kind of bringing my knowledge and experience of working with veterans here,” Epps said. “I met David and Teresa and they were interested in starting a veterans program and that’s what I’m bringing to the table, the experience of having done it.”

Miller said Epps was the missing piece they had been waiting for.

“She has a strong desire, like we do, to work with veterans and so she asked if we would work with her to really get the program up and launched,” Miller said. “One of the major things we were missing was an instructor that could dedicate his or her time specifically to this program, so when she came along she had the experience and came highly recommended from the REACH program in Waco. We sat down together and designed this program, Stars and Strides Patriots Program, and we are doing a pilot starting in March.”

Epps said veterans would come to the program, Horses for Warriors, through the REACH therapeutic riding once a week, have dinner, listen to a presentation and then spend time with the horses.

“It’s based on research done at Fort Hood and it determined that interacting with horses was really beneficial for the combat veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Epps said. “It was really quite successful and an active program in Waco, and I’m really hoping to help veterans in this area as well.”

Through the Waco program, veterans saw improvements in a number of areas, including physical strength, movement and balance, communication skills, emotional regulation, focus and concentration, comfort in new situations, trust in others, social interaction, coordination and cooperation, patience and relaxation, motivation and self-esteem and compassion and empathy.

“We’re going to run an eight-week pilot program in March just to see how it takes off. We’re excited about it and this is something that we wanted to be able to provide for those who have sacrificed to protect our country,” Miller said. “We’re excited about the potential it brings all the veterans here in Parker County and where the program will take us in the future as far as being able to assist veterans who struggle with these types of issues.”

The pilot program will be free for any veteran that wants to participate and Miller said they are working on ways to keep the program free following the eight-week trial run.

“The pilot program is free, when we actually start the program we’re going to be looking for funding sources to help us fund it because we do not want to charge veterans for the sessions because they’ve already given enough as far as I’m concerned,” Miller said.

A presentation to introduce the Stars and Strides Patriots Program and gain interest will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 19 at VFW Post 4746, 224 Zion Hill Road, in Weatherford.

Background about why the program would be beneficial will be presented as well as what can be expected. They will also be looking to recruit veteran participants as well as veteran volunteers to help with the program.

“Because I’m not a veteran and am never going to be able to understand their experiences, we learned that it’s way more beneficial for the veterans that are participating to have other veterans there volunteering,” Epps said. “So one of our biggest philosophies is veterans helping veterans. We would bring veterans in and train them on how to work the horses, and then we invite the participating veterans in.”

Miller said the timing was just right to get this program started.

“There’s no other equine-assisted PTSD program in Parker County,” Miller said. “There are a number of veterans from all different walks of life and all different war eras that live in Parker County and our goal is to reach out to those who feel like they can benefit from equine-assisted therapy and to help them continue to work towards being independent from their post-traumatic stress and being able to function as well as they possibly can.”

For more information about the Stars and Strides Patriots Program or the presentation, call 254-723-0005, email barbara@starsandstrides.org or visit www.starsandstrides.org.

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