Ramona horse owner’s work with veterans featured at GI Film Festival - Ramona Sentinel

2022-05-21 21:41:22 By : Ms. Sophie Lee

Sometimes, horses are just what the doctor ordered — especially when the patients are military veterans dealing with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

A documentary about the use of horses to help war vets dealing with PTSD, titled “Down on the Ranch,” will premiere at the 2022 GI Film Festival San Diego on Saturday, May 21. Produced and directed by Scott Campbell of El Cajon, the 10-minute film features the work of Ellen Kaye Gehrke, the owner/director of Rolling Horse Ranch in Ramona.

“Down on the Ranch” was nominated for “Local Choice Award.”

“I heard 27 films were accepted out of more than 100 submitted. That’s the icing on the cake and shows how competitive the competition is,” Campbell said.

Gehrke has been working with veterans for more than seven years, and researching the horse-human bond for more than 17 years. She volunteers her time and horses to determine the impact equines have on human health.

Campbell and Gehrke met through their respective jobs at National University. Campbell is the academic program director for the bachelor’s major in digital media design, and has a passion for making documentaries. Gehrke is a professor of health sciences, leadership and integrative health in the Department of Leadership and Human Resource Management.

“My goal with this film was to document what Ellen was doing and the impact it’s had, not only on the veterans but on the community the work builds,” said Campbell.

Although he is not a veteran, he said he comes from military lineage, and the experiences the veterans shared with him of their interactions with the horses “really resonated with me.”

Campbell, who describes Gehrke as a “really wonderful, dedicated person,” has spent hours during multiple trips to the Ramona ranch, interviewing and documenting the stories of four veterans.

“I wanted to focus on the importance of the work to military health and coping with PTSD, not so much on the research aspect of the work,” he said.

Gehrke said she believes in the importance of supporting vets with PTSD, and had been hosting equine-assisted clinics for several years before she began working solely with military veterans in 2014.

She doesn’t offer therapeutic riding, but instead, has developed her own program, “The Heart of Horsemanship.” Gehrke’s book, “Ride It Out,” focuses on the research and her program.

Gehrke said she is responsible for “managing everybody and everything,” including the horses, the veterans, the counselors, the volunteers and the scheduling. Since she is not a therapist or counselor, she makes sure professionals in the field on are on hand for the sessions.

“We had about six groups of about eight veterans participating in each 8-week program,” she said. “We had a protocol, and the veterans would come to the ranch one a week for half a day, arriving with their counselors.”

All participants were taught about horse safety before being introduced to the animals. As part of the sessions, participants’ heart rates were measured using non-invasive methods such as fitness touch screens. They would then work a couple of hours with the horses. Some veterans spent their time grooming and walking the animals, while others chose to ride. After interacting with the horses, participants penned journal entries.

“You could see how much the veterans improved by their own words, their journal entries and their heart rates,” Gehrke said. “There was a proven physiological change in the veterans’ moods over the course of the program in every clinic.”

She credits Mike Myers, also of Ramona, for his work as the “hard-core scientist” helping in her heart rate variability research.

Jennifer Lindsley, a suicide prevention counselor who also lives in Ramona, her crew of volunteer wranglers and, of course, her horses, also deserve thanks for their work, she said.

Tom Gunter, a Vietnam veteran who participated in the program, said in the documentary that it helped him deal with the horses and with other people. He grew up with horses, he said, and the peacefulness of being on the ranch “is a different world” and it “eases the mind and eases the heart.”

Another veteran, a military medic who goes by “Mama K,” said in the film that the horses “bring such comfort and such peace to people who have such internal turmoil.”

Gehrke and some of the veterans featured will attend the screening, and will be available for a question-and-answer session at the end of the film.

“My experience working with Scott was great and I’m not surprised his film was nominated,” she said.

Campbell is also a believer in the human-animal bond for people coping with trauma and stress. His first documentary was focused on the bond between service dogs and children with autism.

“I would like the audience to feel the amazing ability that horses can have as instruments of therapy,” he said.

The GI Film Festival, established in 2006 and brought to San Diego in 2015, presents films and events for, by and about military service members and veterans. With the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, San Diego has seven major military bases.

The festival, from May 17 to 21, features 26 films. “Down on the Ranch” screens in the Documentary Block at 2:15 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The film will also be available to watch on-demand on the website from noon Sunday to 11:45 p.m. May 30.

General admission is $10 per screening; $8 for military, veterans and KPBS members. Opening Night and Awards Celebration tickets cost more. All proceeds support the festival. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit: GIFilmFestivalSD.org.

Although Gehrke will continue to work with some of the veterans at Rolling Horse Ranch, she said she is no longer accepting new clients and is not planning on starting any new programs.

“It’s a big commitment of time and resources, but it was my giveback for all their service to us,” she said.

For more information on The Heart of Horsemanship program or her book, visit: RollingHorse.com.

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