Sergeant Maxwell Ramsey made small kissing sounds as he tried to coax Wylie, a muscular black percheron, over to the platform where the soldier stood. He swung the metal and plastic limb that is his new left leg over Wylie's back, and sat down in the saddle.
“Relax your leg. Take a deep breath, remember you are sitting on a big old cushion,” Mary Jo Beckman, a therapeutic riding instructor, said to Ramsey as he and Wylie headed out into a dusty yard with three soldiers walking next to them.
The black and white horses, which usually pull black artillery caissons during military funerals at neighboring Arlington National Cemetery, are also helping soldiers like Ramsey in their long struggle to learn to walk again, to regain strength and to believe in the new limbs they now rely on.
Army Specialist Maxwell Ramsey, 36, from Hilton Head, South Carolina, who lost his leg from a 155mm Iraqi artillery round in
Ramadi, rides Wiley, a Percheron horse, at the Caisson Stables, 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard), at Ft. Myer in
Arlington, Va., Friday, June 2, 2006, outside Washington. Selected amputee soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center are
participating in a therapeutic riding program where horses become a living therapeutic apparatus that aids the use of prosthesis, improves
the core muscle group, and increases self-confidence
“It gives me the confidence to know that I lost an arm and a leg but not the ability to do certain things,” said First Lieutenant Ryan Kules, 25, a Tempe, Arizona, native who was injured by a roadside bomb in November.
The soldiers and the horses from 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, are part of a pilot program at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in nearby Washington to see if soldiers with prosthetic legs can regain some mobility through horseback riding. The Army hospital, where many troops wounded in Iraq recover, has also experimented with other sports such as skiing to help build the balance amputees need to walk again.
Therapeutic riding is widely used for people with physical, emotional and mental disabilities, Beckman said. People and horses walk using the same circular motion in their hips, she said, and riding on the back of a horse can help a person feel and recall that movement.
“Their bodies are getting moved as if they are walking when they are sitting on the horse,” Beckman said.
Soldiers from the unit walked alongside throughout the session in the yard surrounded by the brick stables that house the horses.
“It's all about soldiers helping soldiers,” said Colonel Bob Pricone, commander of the Old Guard.
Ramsey lost much of his left leg in March when a shell buried in a road exploded as his Humvee drove by. Friday was his third time with Wylie and he is working hard in his other physical therapy sessions to avoid spending the average of a year that most amputees need for recovery at Walter Reed.
One of the most difficult challenges is regaining balance in his left leg, he said. Riding a horse forces him to adjust his waist just to keep from falling off, which builds strength and balance in his body's core.
“The way the horse walks, you have got to let your pelvis get into the rhythm of the horse,” said Ramsey, 35.
Before they rode, a physical therapist tested the reaction times of Ramsey, Kules, and Sergeant Christian Valle, who lost most of both legs, to simple tasks. They were asked to get out of a chair walk a few feet, then return to sit down. They also stood on one leg to see how long they could balance.
Kules, who has done therapeutic riding three times, said he has seen his times improve in both tests. When he first began a few weeks ago, it took him 20 seconds to get out of the chair and sit back down. Friday morning, he did it in 13 seconds.
That type of small improvement is emblematic of the dramatic recovery Kules has made since his parents first saw him badly wounded in a hospital bed in Germany six months ago, said his mother, Canice Kules of Scottsdale, Arizona. He has become more comfortable with the prosthetic leg as he adjusts to it, she said.
“You see it becoming a part of him,” said Kules, as she stood at the fence watching her son ride. “It takes a lot of courage to get up there on a horse with one arm and one leg.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard