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Sunday, Feb. 25
The Indiana Daily Student

campus student life

Art + Horses program combines art and animal interaction for veterans

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When Todd Burkhardt retired from the army in 2019, the transition from active duty to civilian life was extremely difficult, he said. Burkhardt said his self-worth was tied to the work he did in the military and as an officer, and then it was all gone.

“The transition was hard, and I felt very isolated, and I became depressed,” Burkhardt said.

The former Army ROTC director at IU was able to find a job at IU’s Center for Rual Engagement, where he is currently the director of campus partnerships. Burkhardt was working with an art therapist at the Eskenazi Museum of Art who suggested that he and his team come to the museum for open studio.

“And there was something about it,” Burkhardt said. “There was something about being given prompts and working through various different art mediums and engaging on the paper where you know, you were the master of whatever you wanted to create, whether it was dark or light, or if it was blended and smeared or pristine.”

Burkhardt said he told the art therapist, Lauren Daugherty, that if art could help him then it could maybe help other veterans. So, they started Creative Arts for Veterans three years ago and have traveled across the state doing engagements for free, including events at prisons, an Oktoberfest celebration and a film screening.

In addition to in-person events, Burkhardt sat down with Daugherty, John Kessler, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, a graphic designer and some interns to create a take-home version, known as the CAV book. The book comes with an art kit and can be mailed anywhere in the U.S. for free to any veteran, current service members and veteran service providers, Burkhardt said. CAV has mailed over 5000 books to 40 states since March 2023.

The Art + Horses program, which is a collaboration between CAV and People and Animals Learning Services, combines the calming activities of painting and interacting with horses. One thing Burkhardt said he discovered from doing events for CAV for three years is that the social dynamic and the connectedness between veterans is extremely important.

“Anybody who served in the military, you are part of a team, you have a purpose, you have a task, you know how you fit into that just like a player on a basketball, soccer, football team,” Burkhardt said. “And when you leave service, it can be really hard and challenging because the team you were a part of is no more and you've been separated, maybe alienated.”

Another thing he discovered, Burkhardt said, is the importance of engaging in an art-based wellness experience to get its benefits along with the benefits of mindfulness and creation.

The third part, Burkhardt said, is not only engaging in art but also engaging with horses. The horses, he said, have been trained to work in an environment with various types of people.

“A horse is a herd animal, and they are an animal of prey and so they're hypervigilant, hypersensitive and so are a lot of veterans,” Burkhardt said.

All CAV’s experiences with horses, Burkhardt said, are non-riding, so they do various things including interactions, grooming, petting, giving commands, walking the horse around an obstacle course or painting horses.

A lot of people, Burkhardt said, come out of these events enjoying mindfulness, exposure, the ability to connect with other veterans, working on art, talking about art and working with the horses.

Pat Carroll, an army veteran and PALS volunteer and employee, said his most impactful experience with the program is getting to be with his fellow veterans and being able to facilitate interacting with the horses.

Carroll said he is usually holding a horse when it’s time for participants to put designs on the horses and, for him, it’s a matter of facilitating with fellow veterans how the horse reacts and what to do and not do.

“But also, just sort of seeing the pleasure and kind of the happiness that kind of comes from that and so to me, that's the big thing,” Carroll said.

Justin Morseth, an army veteran, said his experience has been one of camaraderie and togetherness with other veterans in the community he didn’t know before.

While painting designs on the horse, Morseth said he thought he was channeling his emotions to the animal, and he felt that it was absorbing his emotions for him. In this way, Morseth said, he doesn’t have to feel an uncomfortable feeling, outwardly emotional, which he believes the military and combat contributed to.

“When I have an animal that I'm connected with, you know, I don't have to outwardly show my emotions or anything, he or she, whatever animal is feeling it, so I think that's the biggest thing I get out of it," Morseth said. "Just kind of think of it as kind of release.” 

To learn more about CAV and the Art + Horses program, click here.

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