USA Today Article

  • September 15, 2017

In Middletown, these amazing horses help veterans cope with PTSD

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.

“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.”

She spent a chunk of her childhood in Veterans Affairs hospitals.

“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.

A horse as a mirror

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.”

She added, “If you’re uptight or afraid or panicked, the horse is going to mirror that back at you, so you can see that and absorb it on a subconscious level – and in fact change it, because you’re not going to get the horse to respond differently unless you respond differently.”

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.

“This made my week.”

“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.”

Otto has done a lot for struggling veterans, taking them camping in Pennsylvania, sailing off Long Island and even to an art workshop in Red Bank. This was different, but it seemed to hit home.

“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

More information on the United War Veterans Council, visit

Staff writer Jerry Carino: