LAWTON, Okla. — It is possible to ride the Appaloosas that Ric Jerez uses in his equine assisted therapy, but that’s not how it works. Rather, they help people in distress get better by just being themselves.
In nature, horses are prey and humans are predators. Horses tend to be wary around humans and only let people approach them in a certain way. If a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is handed a halter and a lead rope, and told to pick two horses and bring them in, the horses may not feel like getting caught. That process can be very demanding, and then counselors can ask the vet, “Well, how did that go for you?”
“A lot of times it’s a problem-solving process,” Jerez told The Lawton Constitution.
If a vet is reluctant to open up about the day things went wrong in Baghdad, he might be asked to arrange barrels in a way that reminds him of how things were that day. Then he runs the horses through the barrels, and he can externalize his memories by talking about what happened to the horses. And then he can run the horses through again, but this time making things happen right instead of wrong.
Sometimes vets tell Jerez that, because the horses are always alert and vigilant, they can actually relax because they know the horses are on the job.
Jerez’s program is one of five providers in the state certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), but it is the only one in Oklahoma certified for military services. EAGALA is a worldwide organization with a presence in 51 countries, he said.
Jerez was born in Cuba and was around horses as a small child. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 5 years old, and he grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. His first job at age 15 was cleaning out the stables at Belmont Park, one of the Triple Crown racetracks. He worked there for three years before Hertz Corporation transferred his father to Santurce, Puerto Rico, and actually graduated from high school there.
This is the 11th year his clinical practice, Open Arms Behavioral Health, has been in business in Lawton. He has 14 counselors working for him. They serve both English- and Spanish-speaking clients. Jerez says that since Open Arms probably does more free services than anybody else in Lawton, it gets a lot of people who are in need.
Jerez arrived at this profession by a circuitous path. He originally wanted to be an architect. He first went to Lawrence Institute of Technology in Southfield, Michigan. Then he transferred to the University of Illinois, but ended up dropping out of both.
“I loved architecture. I just wasn’t disciplined enough to do what I needed to do,” he confessed. “So I joined the Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps fixed that discipline issue.”
He enlisted in 1977, and chose field artillery as his branch. That’s what brought him to Fort Sill. He took the fire direction course that fall and came back three more times while he was in the service. He went through survey school and operations chief school before going overseas. On his last tour here, he taught the fire direction course.
Its Marine Detachment had a much smaller presence here in those days because the Marine Corps artillery gunners were not trained at Fort Sill. Each Marine Corps regiment had its own gun school. They have since been consolidated at Fort Sill, which grew its permanent party here from 11 in 1982 to more than 150 today.
He served with the Marines for eight years. He was medically discharged with the rank of staff sergeant in 1985 because he has limbgirdle muscular dystrophy, which affects his arms, legs and upper body. The VA gave him a disability rating of 30 percent (it’s 100 percent now), which was not enough to get him any money. All he had were his GI Bill benefits, and in 1989 he received a letter from the VA saying, “We’ll send you back to school if you want to.”
“I said to my father-in-law, ‘Why would I want to go back to school?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s free, and they’re going to give you money,’“ Jerez recalled.
He was preaching at the time at the Temple Church of Christ, and people would come to him asking for advice.
“I didn’t know what I was saying to them. So I said maybe psychology will help me.”
“Cameron (University) and I go ‘way back,” he said. Some of his earlier college credits were transferable, but it was there that he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and family relations in 1992, and his master’s in behavioral sciences in 1993. He earned his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Oklahoma in 1999.
Before he established Open Arms, Jerez worked for Christian Family Counseling Center in the years 1992 to 1999, and calls it “a great bunch of people.”
The chairman of Cameron’s psychology department had told him to come see him after he graduated from OU. That’s just what he did. He started there in the fall of ’99. He was hired to further develop the master’s program from which he had graduated. He helped develop a licensed professional counselor track and a licensed marriage and family therapy track.
He taught at Cameron for 17 years, first as an assistant professor and later as associate professor. He retired last year due to the constant progression of his disease, because he’s in a lot of pain and often falls down.
He is now focusing on his clinical practice, which includes the equine-assisted therapy. He had long bred Appaloosa show horses to give his four children something to do while they were growing up.
“I’m a firm believer in keeping kids busy,” he said. “I believe they need to have their hands working.”
He bought his first Appaloosa in 1992. His children dressed regally and presented those horses at shows all over the U.S., at nationals and even world shows.
“In fact, we stood a world champion stallion in 2004. The name of the horse was Pretty Dignified,” he said.
At one time they had 25 mares and three stallions, and yes, the kids definitely stayed busy. One of them still has horses; two others come out and visit their father’s.
His wife, Maria, works with him at Open Arms Behavioral Health. She has two grown children from a previous marriage, so together they have six in all.
The equine-assisted therapy began around 2011 or ’12. Originally he set up panels and did it out in the open, but Oklahoma’s weather could make it extremely difficult at certain times of the year.
Then one of his Cameron students told Jerez his father-in-law was having some issues and would like to come and talk with him. They conversed about 45 minutes the next day. At the end, the man asked Jerez how much he owed. Jerez told him he didn’t owe anything.
The next day the man wrote him a letter saying, “I’d sure like to be part of that horse ministry. What do you need?” Jerez said he’d like an indoor arena so he could do equine-assisted therapy year-round. The man said, “How much money do you need?”
It took Jerez a little while to add it up. It came to $36,000, and the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, made out a check for the full amount. He still works with Open Arms on this, and it does a lot of work with the nonprofit Silent War Foundation – the actual recipient of that check.
An Army chaplain started the foundation with the goal of helping veterans and active-duty personnel receive services at no cost to them, for the wounds associated with war. This is what allowed Open Arms Behavioral Health to provide 218 hours of free services last year.
The therapy is especially beneficial for those with PTSD, but it is also applicable to other behavioral situations such as attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, communication needs and relationship problems.
“There are some services we charge for out there, but the ones we do for veterans and military people is all for free,” Jerez said.