US military veteran Marissa leads Leggo at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center in Brooksville, FL.It’s a weekday at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center, a calming swath of fresh-smelling green a few miles off the interstate in Brooksville, Florida.

A quiet break from city life, “Emerald M” is peaceful. Friends and family chat, gazing out into the pasture from the barn, while honorable feline team members Sadie and Tony look for laps to occupy.

Emerald M was started in 2014 by Executive Director Lisa Michelangelo, a skilled physical therapist with a love of horses and 20+ years of experience. Lisa resides near the stables with her family. They’ve cultivated a team of humans and horses who work with people of all ages and backgrounds to bring “hope, renewal, and growth.”

The idea is that horses can sense our emotions or energy, even if we cannot. They provide honest, non-judgmental stimuli and feedback. Through equine-assisted therapies, they create opportunities for clients to explore and reflect on how they move through their own lives.

Research on equine-assisted therapies with military veterans and PTSD survivors shows improvement in symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and satisfaction among subjects. You don’t even have to ride one.

Marissa is one of their newest equine counselors. A young military veteran of average height and light hair, she’s always in a baseball cap. She calls me from the large white porch on the other side of the stables. Her energy moves through the phone.

Thoughtful, articulate, joyful, Marissa seems eager to do whatever she can to help others.

Natasha: Let’s start with your name and title.

Marissa: My name’s Marissa. I’m a social worker. I’m actually in my master’s program right now for clinical social work to be a psychotherapist. I also work along with The Veteran’s HEAT Factory.

Can I ask which branch you served in?

Sure. I did four years in the Marine Corps, and three years in the National Guard.

Both my parents were Air Force veterans. I say that to say I will never know the experience you or they have had completely. But I was raised in the military world, and I have so much love, intrigue, and interest in all of the moving parts. You are sort of figuring things out as you go.

A lot of times when people get out, it takes them a lot of time – a lot of years – for them to even process why they’re not really able to conform back into society.

How did you come to be involved with Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center?

I came to Emerald M as an intern [in] my senior year of my bachelor’s program. Then I never left. I’ve been in combat. I’ve had my own struggles with PTSD to where you just don’t feel like you fit in.

I think coming to this place [and] then staying here to work, it really kind of brings like self-awareness to you. Because a lot of the way that we operate as veterans in general, we can be kind of high-strung, kind of reactive. A lot of the time, we don’t realize how our behavior, even just our body movement is affecting the things around us. 

Tell me about your first day.

My head was going a million miles a minute. And I brought that with me to work the first day. I probably brought that into work the first month.

One of my first experiences [interacting] with a horse was when we did a leading class in the barn. [It] was afternoon and it was outside. It was me and another intern and Lisa. We were gonna do a horse-handling skills class.

I quickly realized leading a horse was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. I also realized the more nervous that I got, the more that the horse could tell. And the less likely the horse was to listen to me.

Leggo is the very first horse that I ever led. The funny thing about Leggo is he’s one of the more chill horses. So if you have a problem leading Leggo, you have a problem leading everyone.

That just sounds like a weird bumper sticker or something.

It does!

Describe to me what was happening.

(Laughing) Any chance that he got, he made me look [silly]. I’m trying to turn him one way and he’s turning the other way. He’s going completely around me. And now I’m in a jumble and now I have to figure out not only how to get him to go the right way, but how to get him completely out of the wrong side of the barn that he’s wandered into.

I’m just so confused because I did everything exactly the way they showed me. But this horse is not listening to me!

Do you get flushed when you get nervous?

I do a little … And it gets heightened too because you have other people in the barn and Lisa’s like, “Nope, why are you going that way? You gotta do it like this.” You really have to calm your body and listen.

(Laughing) Are you a rule-follower like me?

Yes! [I] can’t just grab the horse and grab him like we’re in a show. I have to constantly be in tune with that horse. And when I’m not, the horse knows it … I was going through the motions.

I feel like I could learn a lot from a therapy experience like this. Sometimes figuring yourself out is hard to do. We all have so many layers!

It is very hard to do. You really don’t even think twice until you’re forced to do it. With kids that have ADHD, that child will come here [and] will have to learn to control their body movements or they can’t ride the horse, they can’t groom the horse.

The horse is not as threatening as people are. The horse isn’t gonna judge you.

A lot of people that have social anxiety or Autism [are] able to connect with the horse even when they can’t connect with a person. And sometimes that’s just the beginning piece that they need to get there, to start learning about themselves.

Are horses the primary animal that we can practice this with?

Horses are the only animal that we use here. We also use mini horses. I believe that horses were number 1 in being able to recognize more human emotions than any other animal … Number 2 was dogs.

It’s a thousand-pound animal. And sometimes just learning how to exist with that animal and work with that animal in a peaceful setting is really empowering.

What was your journey to work with horses and feel comfortable?

Having less horse experience than everyone else here, I was definitely very afraid a lot of the time. Because I didn’t want to do anything wrong.

I also tend to be kind of a hyper-vigilant person anyways. So flinching a little bit, or being afraid if the horse lifts his leg to scratch. Making sure I walk super, super far behind the horse if I have to go around him … It definitely brought my heightened anxiety down a little bit, by learning.

Did you recognize the change in your everyday life? 

I did recognize it. Probably after a few months, I just noticed that I was calmer. [Less] inside my head and more kind of in a balance with my environment. You live inside of your head for so long that that’s your house.

How do you know if someone’s a good candidate for an experience like this?

When people are still active in the military, they really haven’t reached that point yet.

What do you mean?

They really haven’t reached that point yet of transitioning. Because they’re still living it.

Do you mean they still have to in some ways be hyper-vigilant? To work or move a certain way. It’s like living in two worlds.

Absolutely! And sometimes the mind is not ready to go there yet. So generally, I would say people who are still Active Duty, probably not the best candidates.

We have less direction when we get out because we’re used to achieving these great, amazing things. We get up at 5 a.m. every day and we’re running and we’re doing this. Well, guess what? Now we’re out and we don’t have anything pushing us to do those great things. Self-direction is a lot harder than it seems! That’s how we get lost.

But we don’t have anyone pushing us, and we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do it our dang selves.

Thank you so much!

Thank you so much.

This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity. For more information on how to start your next journey, connect with Ultraviolet Living today. 

UVL Q&A: One Veteran’s Story of Hope, Renewal and Growth

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