Horses Helped This Vet With PTSD After No One Else Could

05/27/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Sergeant Francis Kirkson, a United States Marine Corps born into a large family in Rochester, Minnesota, got her first rifle when she was nine. Her father sent her out to kill squirrels and rabbits for dinner. She loved playing soldier. When she was twenty, she joined up. They shipped her to Parris Island, South Carolina, to learn how to kill people. She told her family she was proud to be accepted into what she called "America's best fighting force." She said, "I truly felt I could help make a better world."

Sergeant Kirkson was in Iraq for only eight months, but when she came home she wasn't the same person. She began working as a preschool teacher. She thought being with young children would be healing and bring her peace. It didn't.

It didn't matter that Fran had never needed to fire her weapon. She had still needed to step over men and women bleeding from unthinkable wounds and repair their radios. Sleeping meant night terrors. Horrific images of war would cause her to bolt upright, her eyes wide with fear. In an altered state, she'd immediately search her bedroom for an M16 that was never there.

The next day she'd head out for a run on her favorite country road, but her vision would go blurry, her body would start to shake, and she'd have to stop. She could drive, but anytime she saw roadkill, her mind would change it into a body bag. She would start to hyperventilate and have to pull over. Finally, one day, alone in her car, on a quiet road in a small Minnesota town, she broke down and sobbed.

She did everything to excess: work, exercise, dieting, physical therapy. She hoped it would build walls in her mind to help keep out the anxiety, the flashbacks and night terrors. Gradually she lost her connections with her family and friends. Anyone's physical touch was intolerable; her ability to trust anyone or anything had entirely ceased.

Sergeant Kirkson called people at the VA hospital. At the end of a four-hour evaluation, the doctor told her she was exhibiting severe post-traumatic stress disorder. After almost two years of outpatient therapy, she still continued to shake whenever one of any number of benign sights or sounds triggered her PTSD. For Fran, trying to live a simple, ordinary life had become intolerable. Her therapist would later tell her that her recovery was beginning to seem hopeless when something unexpected happened: Fran Kirkson came face-to-face with a horse.

It happened by accident. On one of her weekly five-mile runs, Fran encountered two women on horseback coming toward her down the road. Fran knew nothing about horses but had always loved the way they looked. She stopped running, slowly approached one of the riders, asked if she could touch her horse, and ever so gently put her hand on the horse's neck.

Months later, she would tell her therapist that being close to the horse, smelling him, hearing him breathe, and feeling his soft yet powerful neck brought her a feeling of connectedness she had never known and couldn't explain. She said it was the first time she ever remembered feeling "okay in my own skin."

The natural ability of a horse to accept, without judgment, anyone, including a soldier who had seen or done horrific things and, by so doing, express compassion and benevolent acknowledgement was another extraordinary gift that horses were capable of giving to humans.

Fran entered a program called Horses For Heroes, at Hearts and Horses Therapeutic Riding Center in Loveland Colorado, developed a friendship with a horse named Rainbow.

She said:

"One day, after about two weeks, I put out my hand and she touched it with her nose. Then she dropped her head low and let me gently rub her face and give her a kiss. I think it was the first time in my life I ever felt love, like her to me and me to her. I felt safe with her. I felt I mattered. I know this sounds weird, but when I looked in her eyes I felt like she knew who I was."

"The hardest part of war isn't being there, it's the coming home. You're not the same person. When I came home, I felt like everyone wanted something from me--my friends, my family. They wanted me to spend time with them; they wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to help them feel okay about me. They meant well, but they didn't understand. I just wanted to be alone--that's all I could handle."

"War kills your sense of trust. I didn't know if somebody wanted to be with me to make me feel good or to make themselves feel good. My horse Rainbow didn't know me from before the war. All she knew was what she saw when we met. She didn't want anything from me, didn't expect anything. I didn't have to talk about my feelings; I could just feel them, and she was okay with it. She opened me up. When I realized she had started to trust me, it was the first time since I had come home from the war that I felt like me, like I had gotten my old self back."

Today there are many equine programs available to the thousands of veterans who suffer from the devastating wounds of war and specifically PTSD. The Wounded Warrior Project, working in conjunction with PATH Intl. Equine Services for Heroes is a nonprofit veterans' service organization that offers a variety of programs, services, for veterans of all military actions that followed the events of September 11, 2001.

This story is adapted from my new book RIDING HOME: The Power of Horses to Heal and appears in Chapter 6 ~"The Walking Wounded ~ Horses For Heroes". It is this amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves that is accessible to everyone and found in the pages this book. To learn more about the book please visit: Every book ordered will benefit veterans with PTSD, children with autism and children of families in need. Articles & blogs by Tim Hayes are at: For clinics, classes or private sessions contact:

© Tim Hayes 2015

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