Caitlin Salvestrin devotes her life to working with horses and helping veterans and active-duty service members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a passion, a profession, and a way of life.
Salvestrin is the lead instructor in a cohesive team at Hope for Heroes Horsemanship Center in Yelm, Washington (nonprofit 501c3), a lifesaver for service members and vets living with PTSD.
For centuries, people have emotionally bonded with their horses – they love them! And now, we find that with a carefully designed program, horses have a unique ability to help humans living with health challenges, particularly PTSD.
Salvestrin pointed out the basis of this equine ability, “Horses can sense your heart rate from four feet away” She explained that in a herd, horses are highly responsive to each other, synchronizing their heartbeats. If one horse’s heart rate increases, they all sense danger and, together, take action.
“Horses are prey animals and are hard-wired to keep themselves safe.” Salvestrin said. “It makes them uniquely suited as therapy animals. Think of a horse as a big tame deer,” She smiled and explained that horses can interact dynamically with humans, mirroring our emotional states.
In this way, a horse may be engaged as a living-breathing bio-feedback mechanism, helping a familiar human. The horse helps not as a machine, but as a beloved, non-judgmental friend. In other words, the perfect therapist. This is the foundation of Hope for Heroes.
Horses live in the moment with you. As each student gets to know their horse, they receive feedback from the horse that helps them manage their feelings and internal anxiety. As the 1,500-pound animal acts nervous and jumpy, mirroring that anxiety, the student must try many ways (quickly!) to calm themselves. As they succeed, the horse also calms down, immediately. This success restores/develops the student’s self-confidence and trust in themselves and others. This begins success in equine therapy.
Through the process, students reconnect with themselves and begin to understand their habitual lives, relationships, and emotional challenges. With both mainstream services and the insights that the horses provide, they move toward health.
They train both active duty and veterans. The participants may – but does not need to – have prior experience with horses. Applicants don’t complete forms with the military or Veterans Administration and they don’t pay fees.
Hope for Heroes serves about 55 students each semester, in groups of four to six participants per class. They operate three modules at their immaculately clean ranch: Introduction to Horsemanship, Introduction to Riding, and Introduction to Trail Obstacles. Students learn “natural horsemanship,” which uses the animal's natural instincts for the student to gain trust and acceptance by the horse as the horse's alpha leader.
The classes within the 8-week Introduction to Horsemanship module include orientation/meeting horses, horse assignments (horses select their own riders as facilitated by Salvestrin); grooming, basic handling; farrier demo, groundwork (skills of working with a horse other than as a rider); round penning (working a horse in a circular pen with verbal and visual cues only), and leading through an obstacle course.
Salvestrin grew up around horses, in Petaluma, California. Her story,
“I lived in the Bay Area around San Francisco from age 18 to 20, then moved to Ireland for a year to work with horses, (just bought a one-way ticket and went). I lived in New Zealand the following year, 2008, and returned to California, Pacifica (just south of San Francisco).
“After that. I lived there and ran a full-time lesson program, as well as having a few training clients before I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where I lived and worked with horses for five years. I moved to Washington in 2016, and shortly thereafter had my first of three major knee surgeries on my right knee due to a riding injury. That culminated in a total joint replacement in December 2019.
“I ride and teach both English and Western. I've never shown horses or competed (too expensive), but have been on the teaching and training side of the industry for 20 years. I started as an exercise rider at 16 and worked my way up from there.
Salvestrin lacks a military background but relates to the people she serves and feels grateful to facilitate their healing. She works in a trusted team that uses the power of horses to ground and heal. “Without getting into it,” she said “I've survived a lot. I always came back to the horses, and that work returned me to the land of the living and allowed me to not only be a person again but to be a person who could give back and contribute in my own right.
“Horses aren't passive healing – it takes partnership and, sometimes, difficult decisions to be in their presence. I'm also humbled/honored by the trust I'm given by my students. I know that's no small thing.
This month Salvestrin completed the prestigious Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) certification. Salvestrin also holds certification in Perelli Natural Horsemanship.
Salvestrin works for founder and operations director, Debbi Fisher. Debbi and her husband Executive Director Robert “Bob” Woelk, work with a board of directors to run this nonprofit ranch in rural Thurston County.
They consult nationwide through Hope for Heroes Equine Therapy Consulting, LLC, to help others create similar ventures for equine therapy. They also publish curriculum materials and books. Their most recent book is the 2021, Stopping Veteran Suicide with Horses: A Promising Approach to PTSD by Debbi Lois Fisher and Robert Woelk.
The effect on those helped is dramatic and staff feel their work is important and saves lives. Most individuals with PTSD simply isolate. Equine therapy, while extremely challenging, quickly gives a lot back, with the warm, intense relationship that the students have with their horses. One participant told this reporter, “I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this program has saved me from putting a gun in my mouth and shooting myself.” Equine interventions are increasing, according to the National Institute of Health.
Hope for Heroes operates with (lots of) volunteers. Both students and community members can volunteer with the training provided. If you love horses and are interested in volunteering to help service members, contact Bob at 360-485-223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The farm location is 14528 Avis Lane SE Yelm, WA.
Even so, Hope for Heroes, operating on a $150,000 annual budget, is not fully funded. They never charge students but appreciate donations from individuals, families, and organizations. This nonprofit requests that you please donate online or mail a check to Hope for Heroes Horsemanship, 14528 Avis Lane SE Yelm, WA 98597
Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, writes about good things people in Thurston County are doing. If you’d like to nominate someone to be profiled, contact her at shirley@theJOLTnews.com or comment below.