This life-changing program pairs combat vets with horses. The results are amazing.
A woman stopped Christianna Capra at the Marine Ball. "Thank you for saving my husband's life," the stranger said, before giving her a big hug.
It wasn't the first time Capra had been thanked so profusely. It won't be the last.
As the co-founder of Spring Reins of Life, a New Jersey nonprofit focused on equine-assisted psychotherapy, she has helped more than 700 combat veterans, nearly 1,000 high-risk youth, and 100 kids grieving or dealing with trauma. But Capra takes little of the credit.
"The horses are the ones that do the work," she says. "I'm merely a conduit that allows them to do the work."
In the video below, veterans take part in Spring Reins of Life's "Operation Horse." Read on to discover how this life-changing program came to be.
Christianna "CC" Capra literally grew up a horse-person — well, almost.
"From about the age of 2 to about 6, I became a horse," Capra says with a laugh. "You had to feed me out of your hand and I wore one of my mother's hair pieces — as a tail. So that was kind of how it started."
She was obsessed. Capra found ways to be around horses as much as possible and she got her own at 11 years old. Soon after though, she had to give up horses when she moved to New York in high school. It would be nearly a decade before Capra would be back in the saddle. In 1997, her job in publicity helped her afford her "horse habit" again, and Capra purchased a horse that's still with her today.
But it was an offhand suggestion at the veterinarian's office that led Capra to her life's work.
Through one of her veterinarians, Capra learned about the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). Founded in 1999, EAGALA is an international nonprofit association for professionals interested in using horses to address mental health needs.
"I read the website start to finish and I pulled out my wallet and my credit card that night and signed up for both trainings, sight unseen," she says. "I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was a cathartic moment."
Capra trained as an EAGALA-certified equine facilitator and started her own nonprofit, Spring Reins of Life.
Spring Reins of Life offers equine-assisted psychotherapy for combat veterans with PTSD, children dealing with grief or emotional trauma, and kids in high-risk situations, such as teen violence and crime or substance abuse. Capra, together with licensed mental health professionals and the horses, works with individuals to talk (or not talk) through their grief, concerns, and fears. The group format session for veterans is dubbed "Operation Horse."
"We don't do a lot of talking," Capra says. "What we do is that if the horses start to bring up something, either if they express verbally or we see physically, we might ask some questions about that. 'So what's happening with this horse right now?' And then let [the veterans] project whatever they need to onto the horse and we can talk about it."
The unique thing about EAGALA-certified programs like Spring Reins is that there's actually no horseback-riding.
While Capra admits there is great value in therapeutic programs that offer riding, EAGALA programs are different in that they encourage individuals and horses to be on equal footing, untethered to one another.
"We work in an enclosed space, but the horses are loose. And the clients are loose too," she says. "We're all loose in this space; we call it our community."
Since 2012, Spring Reins of Life has helped around 700 veterans in the New Jersey area.
"Once we come home, the war's not really over. It's very tough to deal with a lot of the issues that we have," says Andrew Haines, an Army calvary scout. "Every time I leave [Spring Reins], my anxiety always goes down. I always feel more relaxed, more calm, more confident that I can do things."
Though Capra has no military background, she'd heard of the troubling statistics surrounding the number of combat veterans living with PTSD and depression. The latest figures estimate 20 military veterans die by suicide each day. Capra knew she had to do something. Today, Spring Reins of Life is the first and only EAGALA approved military service provider in New Jersey.
Spring Reins has a contract with the Lyons campus of the local VA health care system. Veterans from their in-patient PTSD clinic come to Operation Horse once or twice during their 45- to 60-day stays. Homeless veterans from Lyons' domiciliary program, who reside for up to a year, visit Spring Reins even more. Now, local vets with PTSD have started coming to "open" sessions at Spring Reins to work with the facilitators and horses as often as they need to. The mental health professional assisting Capra with Operation Horse is Maria Katsamanis, a licensed psychologist and National Guard veteran. Everything is HIPPA compliant and sessions are not open to the public.
"Being out here, I don't feel like a person with PTSD," Michael Otto Steiger a U.S. Marine Corps veteran says. "I just feel ... average or normal."
But Capra may not be able to keep Spring Reins open and operating without a miracle.
Little by little, Capra has dedicated her life and everything in it to making Spring Reins of Life a reality. It hasn't been an easy journey.
"I went through my 401(k), then my savings, then I trashed my credit, then I sold my jewelry, and parts of my wardrobe that were worth any money, then I sold my horse's wardrobe, and my home in New York," she says. "It's a test of faith and those jumps you make when you're following your purpose."
Spring Reins needs to find a new facility by April 1. Finding a new place to call home may be a challenge as indoor and outdoor arenas, offices and meeting rooms, a pasture, stables, storage, restrooms, and possibly even living space are needed. Location is critical too.
"It took us four years to get a contract with the VA. We really do have to stay local," Capra says. "A radius of North Mercer County, North and East Hunterdon County, and Somerset County [New Jersey] — that puts me under an hour from Lyons."
For now, Capra prays and she works. She believes in the program, and like the veterans she serves, she's not going down without a fight.
"I believe in my heart there is the perfectly facility out there," she says.
Capra continues to search for it and is following every lead. She is optimistic that the perfect spot will come her way. But if she can't find one, and Spring Reins has to shutter indefinitely, her equine therapy work will continue in some capacity or another.
"Even if I had to close my doors, which I can't even fathom the idea of that, but even if I did; I would live the rest of my life with that purpose," Capra says. "We are saving lives right now. If that's one a month, or one a week, or one a year even, I think that's worth it."