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Art + Horses program helps Indiana veterans mend invisible wounds of war

Nov 1, 2023

Navy veteran Stephanie Kroot participates in the IU Creative Arts for Vets wellness program, Art + Horses, by painting symbols of strengt... Navy veteran Stephanie Kroot participates in the IU Creative Arts for Vets wellness program, Art + Horses, by painting symbols of strength on therapy horses at PALS Barn in Bloomington. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

Creative Arts for Vets, a program facilitated by the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, offers arts-based support for Indiana’s veterans, service members and military-connected populations to promote connectedness and improve mental health and well-being.

Now in its third year, Creative Arts for Vets collaborates with community organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Indiana and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to create free activities that alleviate stress, anxiety and depression and improve mindfulness.

The organization currently offers arts-based wellness materials and events such as mask making, needle felting and kintsugi. Created in collaboration with People and Animals Learning Services, the Art + Horses program says it all in the name: It combines the calming activities of painting and interacting with horses. Participants design symbols of strength, inspiration and heraldry and then paint those symbols on a horse.

The program also teaches participants about the art of painting horses within the context of historical warrior culture.

United States veterans participate in the Paint + Horses program by learning about the history of painting horses in warrior culture and ... United States veterans participate in the Paint + Horses program by learning about the history of painting horses in warrior culture and designing their own symbols of strength to paint onto a therapy horse. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

“Painting horses was not uncommon in warrior cultures throughout history, whether that’s Native American or Viking or Celtic, and we work with warrior culture or professional soldiers and service members,” said Todd Burkhardt, director of campus partnerships at the Center for Rural Engagement and co-creator of Creative Arts for Vets.

Burkhardt understands firsthand. He served for nearly 28 years active duty and as the director for the Army ROTC at IU. Once he retired four years ago, Burkhardt said he struggled with depression, since his self-worth had been tied to his military profession for so many years. He said that finding art was a revelation that inspired him to help create this program and share the therapeutic benefits of arts-based wellness with others.

“There’s a lot of evidence-based research to show that using art in a therapeutic manner can reduce feelings and symptoms associated with suicidal ideation, alienation, marginalization, loneliness, depression, substance use, post-traumatic stress, sexual trauma and traumatic brain injury,” Burkhardt said. “A lot of people who have spent any time in the military might suffer from some type of invisible wounds.”

Integrating the history of painting horses within warrior culture adds a unique element to the program, connecting veterans to those throughout history who took part in a similar practice. In warrior culture, the horse and the warrior were bonded companions in battle and in life.

Army veteran Pat Carroll interacts with a therapy horse during Paint + Horses, part of the Indiana University Creative Arts for Vets prog... Army veteran Pat Carroll interacts with a therapy horse during Paint + Horses, part of the Indiana University Creative Arts for Vets program. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

Carlton Shield Chief Gover, assistant professor of anthropology, curator of public archaeology at the IU Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, shared his expertise on the Pawnee to illustrate the close relationship between warriors and horses in the past.

“Horses were more than beasts of burden and objects of wealth for the Pawnee,” Shield Chief Gover said. “Warriors would decorate their horses in different paints and regalia. Paint colors and designs would have medicinal or spiritual significance, tallies for the number of horses stolen or coup counted, and personal style choices representing the warrior. Families would go to great lengths to care for their horses and develop close bonds with the animals.”

An example of the bond between a warrior and his horse from history is the story of Sitting Bull’s cousin, Joseph No Two Horns, whose Lakota name was He Nupa Wanica. During the Battle of Little Bighorn, his blue roan stallion was shot seven times but managed to carry him to safety before dying.

No Two Horns was haunted by his beloved horse’s death, and he expressed his feelings by drawing, painting and even carving depictions of his horse. He became a renowned artist, and many of his depictions are on exhibit at several museums, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Today’s warriors are not riding into battle on horses, but the act of connecting with the gentle animals and learning about the historical relationship between warrior and horse creates a different kind of bond. After each Art + Horses session, participants fill out an anonymous survey about their experience, and they unanimously praised the activity and described the horses as “patient and loving” and “calming.”

“My favorite part was washing the paint off of Coco,” an anonymous participant wrote. “I got into a quiet, peaceful rhythm which was much needed.”

“Engaging in the art, talking to others and working with the horses — you’re engaged fully in the moment and not thinking about all those other things that are affecting you or wearing you down,” Burkhardt said. “It’s just wonderful to provide that for veterans. It’s a really unique experience.”

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Julia Hodson

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