Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida – Not horsing around with healing
By Patrick McCallister
For Veteran Voice
On July 2, 1967, Frank Libutti was a young lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He was in Vietnam. That’s the day when he, in his own words, “fell in love with the Marines.”
“The battalion I was with was in a big fight in a place called the Market Place in South Vietnam,” he said.
Vietnam War historians have probably already put together the date and place and figured out that Libutti was in Operation Buffalo, which stretched almost two weeks. By the end of it, 159 American servicemembers were killed. Libutti was one of the 845 wounded. One remains missing.
“I was lucky to survive that event,” Libutti said. “Not due to any talent on Frank’s part. Just trying to survive and beat the bad guys. I was wounded three times in one day.”
This is where falling in love with the Marines comes in.
“I survived, because of my troops,” said Libutti. “They took care of me. They saved me.”
Libutti was in the Corps from 1966 to 2001. He attained the rank of lieutenant general, among other credits. He was among the first batch of undersecretaries at the Department of Homeland Security, too. It started in 2002.
All along, Libutti was carrying post-traumatic stress disorder since Operation Buffalo.
“You deal with it, because you don’t focus on that all day long as you continue through life,” he said. “You camouflage those feelings.”
A few years ago, Libutti went to an equine-assisted therapy program on the Treasure Coast. He loved it. But, that program shuttered when the founder had to relocate. There was no way that Marine was going to let equine-assisted therapy for local Veterans go away. An equine specialist Libutti met at the program, Karen Woodbury, and he started Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida in 2021.
As its name implies, equine-assisted therapy, also called equine therapy, is a complimentary therapy to other mental-health treatments. In short, it’s getting people and horses together, so is part of the broader category of animal-assisted therapy. While the hard numbers aren’t yet in, equine therapy is generally a respected complementary treatment for a wide range of conditions including anxiety, addiction, depression, and, yes, PTSD. It’s also popular for helping neurodivergent individuals, such as those with autism, develop and keep autonomy.
The “Psychology Today” website’s article on equine-assisted therapy explains it’s “theorized to help patients build confidence, self-awareness, and empathy.”
“During an equine-assisted therapy session, the client will typically engage in basic caretaking activities with the horse with the help and direction of an equine specialist; common examples include grooming the animal, feeding it, and leading it around an enclosure,” the article reads. “They may also take on more complex activities, such as creating a basic obstacle course for the horse and guiding them through it.”
The article later continues, “Because horses have long been domesticated and live alongside humans, it’s thought that they are especially attuned to humans’ emotions and nonverbal signals and that they respond accordingly. While engaging in activities with the horse, the client will attempt to recognize how the horse’s behaviors might be due to their own emotional signals—a client who is angry or anxious, for example, may see the horse pull away or otherwise respond negatively. This ‘mirroring’ process is thought to help the client identify what they’re feeling and potentially modify their emotions for the better, all in a nonjudgmental environment.”
In 2019 Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill giving the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs $200,000 to contract universities to study several complementary therapies, including equine-assisted, for Veterans. Those studies are still underway, as are others.
Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida
Libutti said about 30 Veterans have gone through the Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida program. They’ve come from various places.
“What we do, we’ve connected with the VA hospital in West Palm Beach and the Banyan Treatment Centers here in Stuart, Florida,” Libutti said.
Additionally, Horses and Heroes works with Indian River State College’s Veterans Center of Excellence, local Veterans organizations, and others to find clients. Additionally, individuals can contact Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida through the website, hhsef.org.
Groups that’d like to have Libutti speak about what Horses and Heroes is doing can also contact him through the website.
The program is free to participating Veterans.
“The bottom line in terms of what we share with people is this, (we’re) connecting the soul of a Veteran with the spirit of a horse,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida- Equine specialist Karen Woodbury stands with one of Horses and Heroes of Southeast Florida’s therapy horses. The equine-assisted therapy not for profit started in 2021.