Asbury Park Press
It was a moving scene as a group of suffering veterans experienced equine therapy for the first time. A chance meeting in the woods inspired the encounter.
MIDDLETOWN – Kris Quinn ambled over to the horse, named Davis, not sure what to expect. He reached out gently, stroking Davis’ forehead. They stood face-to-face for a few minutes.
The rustle of a light summer breeze was the only sound between them.
Then Davis raised his head and rubbed his muzzle on Quinn’s cheek. It was a heart-melting gesture, and hopefully a healing one.
Like a dozen other military veterans who visited Serenity Stables Tuesday afternoon, Quinn has posttraumatic stress disorder. This was equine therapy, and the six horses on this 15-acre tract are the counselors. The program, “From Combat to Calm,” was founded in 2015 by Keyport native Rene Stone, who welcomes veterans free of charge as she juggles full-time work as a mortgage banker for HomeBridge Financial Services.
“It’s fascinating, what these animals do,” Stone said.
So is the serendipitous story behind Tuesday’s visit.
A promise kept
Stone was inspired to help PTSD sufferers by her own experiences.
“The reason I do this is because my father was a veteran who suffered shell shock,” she said. “He ended up trying to commit suicide. Nobody could diagnose what was wrong with him.”
“I used to have to leave dad and (other disabled veterans) there and it broke my heart,” she said. “I promised myself one day I would do something to help them.”
Then something else happened. In 1998, Stone was involved in a fatal car crash and suffered from PTSD as a result. The barn was the only place she could find peace.
“My horse Tristan virtually saved my life as I was unable to function,” she said. “I knew then that these magnificent creatures had the ability to help your spirit heal. Over the years God continued to press this need to help veterans on my heart.”
Three years ago, when the opportunity arose to lease the land for Serenity Stables, “I jumped on it,” she said.
In January, Stone encountered 47-year-old Marine Corps veteran Mark Otto while hiking through Hartshorne Woods Park. Otto, a Red Bank resident, has logged thousands of miles of rucking (a military term for walking with a weighted backpack) to raise PTSD awareness.
The issue is deeply personal for Otto, who served in the Gulf War and the invasion of Panama. He lost an ex-Marine friend to suicide, and through his work as vice president of the United War Veterans Council, he came to realize that his sleepless nights and bursts of anger were symptoms of a bigger problem.
He, too, suffered from PTSD.
The chance meeting with Stone in the woods led him to Serenity Stables.
“I started coming here every week for about six months, doing it in tandem with traditional therapy through the VA,” Otto said. “This is an excellent way to complement it. You learn a lot about yourself through horses.”
He’s already sleeping better.
“It’s been immensely beneficial,” Otto said.
He wanted other veterans to benefit, too.
Stone’s staff is trained and certified through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).
“Horses are highly in tune to their environment,” she said. “When you’re around the horse, the horse picks up on your emotion and mirrors it back to you. The way the treatment works, the horse becomes the metaphor for whatever is going on in (the person’s) life, whether it’s an abusive relationship or trauma.”
Tuesday’s visitors, who came from the goodwill network Samaritan Daytop Village in New York City, got just a short taste of it. After spending two hours with Serenity Stables’ horses, they sat in a circle and shared their thoughts on the experience. The comments were telling.
“I have some issues, but I didn’t think about those at all when I was hanging out with the horses.”
“Thank you for letting me interact one day and get some peace of mind with your horses.”
“I’m sure everyone at some point feels like they need a hug,” veteran Joe Barrios told the group afterward. “They give their version of a horse hug by just rubbing themselves against you. Even though they’re not physically putting their arms around you, that’s what it kind of felt like.
“And it felt really nice.”
Serenity Stables’ From Combat to Calm program is free for veterans and their families. It is supported entirely by donations. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.serenitystablesfcc.org.
More information on the United War Veterans Council, visit www.uvwc.org.
Staff writer Jerry Carino: email@example.com.