Charities of the Wine Festival: New Operation Strides helps veterans heal with horses

Reno Anselmi watches his son Zach Anselmi, 4, during his riding session at Naples Equestrian Challenge on Saturday. Anselmi is one of the participants in a new program at Naples Equestrian Challenge, where returned soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are getting assistance, as are their family members who have to endure what the soldier is going through during their recovery. Anselmi was in the Marines as well as the Army and was in the Persian Gulf war in the 90's. On top of the PTSD, Anselmi has also suffered brain trauma from a training accident.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Reno Anselmi watches his son Zach Anselmi, 4, during his riding session at Naples Equestrian Challenge on Saturday. Anselmi is one of the participants in a new program at Naples Equestrian Challenge, where returned soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are getting assistance, as are their family members who have to endure what the soldier is going through during their recovery. Anselmi was in the Marines as well as the Army and was in the Persian Gulf war in the 90's. On top of the PTSD, Anselmi has also suffered brain trauma from a training accident.

— The Naples Equestrian Challenge is taking on a new challenge — veterans.

The local charity has launched Operation Strides, reaching out to veterans for the first time. The mission: To help veterans from the Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf wars dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and amputation. The strategy: To help them heal with horses.

In the works for more than 18 months, Operation Strides deployed on Jan. 7, with five veterans signing up for the first eight-week therapeutic program.

Reno Anselmi, a disabled veteran and stay-at-home dad in the group, is no stranger to the Naples Equestrian Challenge, as his overly active son is also going there for weekly therapeutic rides.

His son Zack, 5, has been riding horses at the barn off Goodlette-Frank Road for a few months on Saturday afternoons. "He's calmed down some since," Anselmi said.

Zack is home-schooled and his hyperactivity makes that difficult for his mother, but the kindergartner's attention has improved noticeably since he started riding horses.

Horses have long been used as a tool to help calm and inspire the disabled, including children with autism and veterans.

As he waited to ride Saturday, Zack was anything but patient. He kept trying to open a gate to get to the horses when it wasn't his turn. He lifted a plastic chair up and down and he zigzagged about with boundless energy.

Once he was on a horse, Zack seemed much calmer as he threw bean bags into buckets, helped steer his way around the barn and put his hands on his shoulders to work on balance. To do all this, he had to follow directions, keep focused and show self-control.

"There's something about having a ton of animal underneath you," said his mom, Michelle Anselmi, as she watched. "I wish he could do this every day."

She expects that same power from horses to benefit her husband, Reno, in other ways through Operation Strides.

"Horses don't like mixed messages," she said. "He will learn about his emotions and he will learn to be more relational."

She hopes the program will help her husband "not go to that dark place so fast and so frequently."

"It's amazing that one horse can help in many different ways," she said.

While Operation Strides is for grown-ups, it may not have happened without the Naples Children & Education Foundation, which encourages the charities it supports to get bigger and better.

This is the third of a week-long look at children's charities aided by the Naples Children & Education Foundation, sponsors of next weekend's annual Naples Winter Wine Festival.

CLICK for related story: Charities of the Wine Festival: Children's mental health a focus in 2013

CLICK for related story: STAR program focuses on preschool-aged children with behavior problems

The foundation, sponsors of the annual Naples Winter Wine Festival, which benefits local childrens' charities, raises millions annually through an auction that includes exotic trips, rare wines, custom jewels and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The 2013 event is this coming weekend.

The foundation has given the nonprofit equestrian center $1.6 million since 2003 to help kids with disabilities and special needs in Collier County. That money has given the charity room to grow and expand its reach through new programs for kids and adults.

As Reno Anselmi, a Persian Gulf veteran, watched his son ride Saturday, he looked forward to his turn with the horses. Veterans meet weekly on Mondays for Operation Strides.

The program uses horses and a psychotherapist to help war veterans deal with their emotions, from anger to self-doubt, build their confidence and self-awareness, and improve their communication.

Reno Anselmi said he's never sure what to expect when he reports to Operation Strides: "It's kind of a surprise."

So far, exercises have included taking horses through an obstacle course to show how they get through it, which is meant to represent the challenges of everyday life, and making the horses jump over poles without touching them, which encourages the use of positive body language.

Later in the program, Reno Anselmi will get to ride the horses himself.

He learned right away that a horse can tell if he's mad or sad. He understands that he has to stay positive if he wants the horse to do what he wants — and that's a lesson he knows he can use at home.

He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from falling out of a helicopter during a training exercise in the Marine Corps. He's also bipolar so keeping his emotions in check is a daily struggle.

"When I was deployed, I did see enough to know that I didn't really like war too much," Reno Anselmi said. "It wasn't really a good thing. It was just good to be back home."

He served in the Marine Corps for five years and spent seven years in the Army. He had various jobs, from teaching military tactics to issuing weapons.

The Anselmis have lived off Randall Boulevard near Ave Maria for three years. The couple also has two daughters, 10 and 8, and the family lives off his disability check. They couldn't afford to pay for the equine therapy.

"That's an amazing opportunity," Michelle Anselmi said of Operation Strides. "Equine therapy is real expensive and these veterans, most of them, would not be able to afford it on their own. It's just such a gift."Naples Equestrian Challenge is paying for Operation Strides with money raised on its own.

Country recording artist LeAnn Rimes visited the Naples Equestrian Challenge on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, before a concert that night at a private home in Port Royal.

Photo courtesy of Louis Venne

Country recording artist LeAnn Rimes visited the Naples Equestrian Challenge on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, before a concert that night at a private home in Port Royal.

"We've luckily been receiving funds from the Naples Children & Education Foundation for about the last decade and the funding, which only goes toward our children, has allowed us to expand our services and touch on other community needs," said Kim Minarich, executive director of Naples Equestrian Challenge.

Last year, Naples Equestrian Challenge reached 374 people with its programs and it now has five certified therapeutic riding instructors.

"Who they were in 2003 versus who they are now is because of the influence of the NCEF," said Maria Jimenez-Lara, the foundation's grants director. "NCEF has urged charities to diversify their funding bases, to develop and improve funding efforts, and to become more self-sufficient. Without the influence of the NCEF, Operation Strides may have never come about."

The charity raised $85,000 for Operation Strides during a "cash call" in November at a Bootstrap Boogie Barn Dance, its major annual fundraiser. The program costs about $30,00 a year, so there's enough money to keep it going for nearly three years. That's exactly what the Naples Children & Education Foundation wants to see.

It's mission accomplished with Operation Strides.

Editor's note: This is the third of a week-long look at children's charities aided by the Naples Children & Education Foundation, sponsors of next weekend's annual Naples Winter Wine Festival.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features