When Becky McGinnis had a bad day, she used to relieve her stress by taking a long drive in her car. But about ten years ago, the Navy jet mechanic became terrified of driving.
“I was in a very horrific car accident, we rolled a truck nine times. It just terrified me. I couldn’t get in a car after that.”
When Becky was in the hospital, doctors discovered a brain tumor that they believe was caused by her work.
“I was taking off a fuel station and it was full of fuel, that I was told it was not. So, I was covered in jet fuel. That caused a brain tumor.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but Becky began experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
“Accident, brain tumor, brain surgery, I mean, really traumatic. Then waking up and just not really knowing who I was, what was going on. A lot of things were different.”
She struggled with her Navy job and eventually they put her out. She stopped driving, was terrified to drive with others and couldn’t keep a job, but she didn’t know why.
“I holed up farther in my house and I didn’t talk to people and I didn’t go anywhere.”
Then Becky found Rainier Therapeutic Riding, a program in Yelm that helps active duty and veteran soldiers deal with PTSD through horseback riding. At first she didn’t talk to anyone.
“It was really hard. I came in and I left and I came in and I left and I just couldn’t stay in the arena. I think I counted 150 times that day that I walked in and out of the arena. I just couldn’t stay there.”
But executive director Elisia Mutter says that’s typical behavior of soldiers with PTSD.
“A lot of times when riders show up for their very first day, more times than I can count they have they asked us if the building’s been secured. A lot of times they have their backs to the wall, their eyes look very dull, almost dead. A lot of times very nervous, very anxious, jumpy. They won’t really want to talk to anybody.”
But the horses eventually pull riders out of their shells.
“Many of these men and women are not interested in talking to a therapist. So we found that having therapeutic riding instructors is really helpful. But the only actual therapists in the arena have hooves. They are so good at understanding people and understanding what those riders may need at that moment. They react differently to each and every person based on what that person might need. Whether they need to be pushed a little bit or whether they need to have softness and quietness.”
Cofounder Debbi Fisher says they are very careful not to trigger any flashbacks, often caused by PTSD.
“We even have special words that we use in regards to our horsemanship. What a normal horse person would say in regards to a horse resting it’s back foot would be ‘cocking a back foot.’ Well, ‘cocking’ is like cocking a gun so we never say that. We actually say ‘resting a foot.’ The lead rope has got a snap on it. We’ve always called them ‘clips.’ Well a clip can be something that’s used inside of a gun, that could be a trigger that sets that person off.”
Becky says she accomplished more in eight weeks at Rainier Therapeutic Riding than in eight years in therapy. She’s been coming to the free program for nearly two years now.
“Just three days ago I started driving again after years of not driving a car ever. I’m out of my house. I actually work for the program, which I wasn’t able to hold down a job before. I’m participating in my kids’ lives and my husband’s life and I’m getting back to being whole.”
And that means introducing her three and five year old kids to the person she used to be.
“When I got in the car the other day my son said, ‘Why are you in Daddy’s seat?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna drive!’ ‘But Mom, you’re all by yourself!’ So I’m excited for them to meet me as a whole person, someone who can take care of myself.
Click here to connect with Rainier Therapeutic Riding in Yelm.