Ranch offers free equine therapy for military veterans

After the death of their nephew, Jim and Lily Carlson dreamed of helping fellow veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jim and Lily Carlson had both served in the U.S. military — Jim spent two years in the Navy during World War II and Lily was a Navy nurse during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The two eventually met, fell in love, married and settled down in Renton on what would eventually become the Hitching Rail Wellness Center and Retreat, a 14-acre ranch where their horses would help fellow veterans with “PTSD and other invisible injuries.”

The Carlsons had the idea for helping active duty, veterans, first responders and their families back in 2009 and it finally came to fruition in 2015.

“We had horses for pets and we learned about using horses for therapy and we found that different organizations that tried it had found positive results,” Carlson said about getting the idea about starting a nonprofit for veterans that focused on equine therapy.

A 2018 study found that veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder had “statistically significant decreases in their PTSD symptoms over the 6-week [therapeutic horseback riding] program.”

Angie Pechal, a Hitching Rail board member, said that she sees the confidence of veterans go up by the time they finish their eight-week program.

James Kneisel, 32, lives in Maple Valley with his family and started coming to the Hitching Rail in April 2022. Kneisel joined the army reserves right out of high school where he was active for four years before being medically discharged.

“I was deathly afraid of horses before,” Kneisel said. “And that’s changed.”

Kniesel had signed up for the eight-week course and still goes to the Hitching Rail to ride one of the center’s three horses: Jolie, Skippy and Heidi, but he mostly rides Heidi.

Along with equine therapy, which is free for veterans and their families, the ranch also offers low-cost horse riding lessons at all levels to the general public, as well as two gardens and an orchard.

The organization is mostly run by volunteers, with a horse trainer and equine therapist who receive compensation.

“We want to serve other who’ve served us,” said Pechal. “It’s something that we’re all passionate about and are happy to give out time for.”

While veterans do sign up for eight weeks, their participation is based on need, especially since the events are only currently able to take place on Saturdays. We meet our veterans where they’re at, said Pechal.

“Having this group has been better than any therapist,” said Kniesel, who deals with PTSD since his deployment to Afghanistan. “Something about working with the horse — the sheer size of it — it’s really calm, [especially] out on a farm away from cities and sounds.”

Kniesel also mentioned that it’s easy to open up to horses, since part of the sessions is grooming them while using soothing words to keep them calm, and that he likes that “horses aren’t judgemental,” a sentiment that Carlson also shares.

“Horses have a calming influence and are non-judgemental,” Carlson said. “People are calmed down greatly by being around a horse.”

According to Carlson, 96 (going on 97), having a place where active duty, veterans, first responders and their families can benefit from being around horses and equine therapy was “a dream” that he and Lily had, as their nephew — who was also a veteran — died by suicide years after returning from the Vietnam War.

“If we can prevent even just one suicide, then it’s all worth it, ” Carlson said.

The Hitching Rail Ranch is located in Renton at 10332 151st Avenue Southeast. For more information, visit www.HitchingRailRanch.org.