WARNER, S.D. — U.S. Army veteran Tracy Diefenbach speaks lovingly of the horses recently at a small farm north of Warner, South Dakota.
The horses are enjoying the unseasonably warm, if wet, weather as she introduces them to visitors, and though at first glance they seem like horses you might find at a petting zoo or a hobby farm, these horses are highly-trained service animals that work to relieve the effects of traumatic brain injuries in military veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re not your typical equine therapy program,” Diefenbach said.
Diefenbach and Chris Reder, a veteran of the United States Navy and her partner at the DTOM 22/0 Veterans Ranch, should know. The pair both suffered brain injuries during their time in the service and understand the impact PTSD and other ailments can have on those returning home from service.
The two met by coincidence on a memorial ride for Diefenbach’s husband, Joshua, a fellow veteran who died by suicide in their home in 2011. The tragedy sparked something in Diefenbach and kick-started her personal drive to seek out ways to help veterans heal.
“I’ve been researching brain injuries since I lost my husband. He was a nine-time combat veteran. He committed suicide in our home in 2011,” Diefenbach said. “So I took a bad incident and went back to school and got my doctorate and specialized in integrated treatments for combat-related brain injuries.”
She studied at Northcentral University in Prescott Valley, Arizona, and earned her doctorate in a combination of education and psychoeducation.
Reder, a native of Warner, struggled after leaving the military, he said. He got the ball rolling with the ranch and its foundation after getting involved with various veterans organizations as a volunteer and wound up wanting to do more for vets who were suffering similarly to himself.
“I started the foundation because I was struggling with my injuries in the military. I spent a lot of time struggling,” Reder said. “I was struggling with drinking and probably not living a good life and trying to find my way. So I started doing some volunteer work with veterans organizations to get back around veterans again.”
After moving to Colorado to take a step back from the world, he eventually studied the Draper Method, a style of training therapy horses that has similarities to the type Diefenbach and Reder have developed in the years since. And while that method has had some success, Diefenbach and Reder have been able to expand on that approach.
After her time in college, she set out to develop a treatment approach for conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and autism, among others, that was not pharmaceutically based. She believes the use of pharmaceuticals can mask the problem but should not be considered a long-term solution.
Years of study led her to develop the Max Rhythmic Motion Sequencing Therapy, which involves the identification of specific brain waves and altering them through hemispheric brain and motion sequencing using time, momentum and the motion of horses to speed healing.
Riders are placed on the horses, which are taught to trot in a specific way that forces the human brain to adjust to its motion rhythms. This, in turn, can stimulate brain waves that help return the brain to a condition it was in prior to its injury.
“A normal horse will trot with his feet out front. We slow ours down to where they’re almost in place and train them to criss-cross their back legs in motion,” Diefenbach said. “So they do an ‘X’ to create a swing that changes brain waves in hyperactive brains.”
They both have undergone therapy sessions using the method themselves, and describe the effect of the motion to be unusual and almost, in a way, uncomfortable. The effects on riders can be dramatic. The pair have seen veterans on their horses have powerful emotional reactions as the treatment begins to take hold.
“There are a couple of things a rider will do. They will either gasp for air — they’ll suck in a bunch of air and freeze. Or they will yell no, but we don’t stop,” Diefenbach said. “Almost every single rider breaks down and cries.”
It’s a process that requires patience, trust and training. Reder and Diefenbach both stress rider safety is paramount, and one attendant at the sessions is always positioned to help a rider if they need to dismount, which does occasionally happen.
The majority of those riders eventually overcome that stress, and the results have been beyond encouraging. Diefenbach said she has been relieved of the night terrors that stemmed from her PTSD, and she has seen similar results in fellow veterans. Even some non-injury related ailments can be treated with the MRMS approach.
“We’re working with a client from Colorado who has frontal lobe dementia, and we’re seeing a slow progress where he’s able to recognize sequences of names and people. It’s starting to come back,” she said. “With this we’ve been able to stop or slow essential tremors from Agent Orange and Parkinson’s. We can actually control tremors from Parkinson’s with no medications. The rider is still on medication with their normal doctor, but we have been able to control it with this therapy.”
While the pair have been refining their method over the past few years, they say more research is important. Diefenbach has published her findings through the Library of Congress, lending scientific backing to their theories, and she is slated to speak on the matter at Duke University, Georgetown University and Harvard. But they are not through with fine tuning their approach.
They are very protective of the actual method used to train the horses and the way they trot and are trying to have it patented. They don’t want to share the specifics of the method with outside therapy centers for fear that any changes made to it could jeopardize its effectiveness or the safety of the participants.
They also don't want the method exploited for financial gain, Diefenbach said.
“We’re protective of this because we don’t want it to be monopolized. It’s not about the money, we don’t charge a penny. You can’t say that it’s 100% effective because one or two cases were solved, it will take years of research, and veterans are not guinea pigs,” Diefenbach said.
Diefenbach said that approximately 4,000 veterans have had some connection to the program since its inception, and regular sessions continue to take place at the DTOM 22/0 Foundation just north of Warner. The foundation is a nonprofit, does not accept money from government agencies and is funded by private donations.
Being a community-based program is important because of that personal connection, she said.
“I want the community to support us, because it takes a community to integrate our vets and their families back out there successfully,” Diefenbach said.
While Diefenbach and Reder are the only people working full-time at the facility, they say they will continue to perform their outreach and new therapy methods for those in need. They are happy to take calls and inquiries on their methods, and are ready to help suffering veterans find their way back on the horse.
They know, because it worked for them.
“It has transformed my life,” Diefenbach said.
More information on the DTOM 22/0 Foundation and its veterans ranch can be found at dtom220.org.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or is known to be contemplating suicide, reach out to health care professionals like those at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.
The DTOM 22/0 Veterans Ranch also maintains a crisis hotline at 605-725-3866.