Feature Story

Back in the Saddle

After a successful pilot program, UCF doctor Manette Monroe is working to establish a new equestrian therapy center for veterans near Lake Nona


Dr. Manette Monroe loves horses. So much so, in fact, that she rode professionally for a time and got her undergraduate degree not in pre-med or biology or chemistry—as you might expect of a faculty member in the UCF College Medicine—but rather in animal science.

Of course, as an assistant professor of pathology and assistant dean of students in the college, her focus now is primarily on humans, as both patients and students. But not entirely. New research Monroe is doing in the area of equine-assisted therapy has her spending quality time with horses again, this time at Heavenly Hooves, a therapeutic riding facility based in Osceola County.

Dr. Manette Monroe

Specifically, Monroe researches whether such therapy benefits veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an area where little formal research has been done. Essentially, clinicians have observed that equine-assisted therapy works, but they don’t know why it works, exactly how well it works nor how they might be able to make it work even better.

Monroe first partnered with Heavenly Hooves in spring 2012 and began an eight-week pilot program called Horses and Heroes. Eight veterans learned to care for, saddle and ride horses, as well as work with fellow veterans, leading to markedly reduced anxiety and what Monroe calls “huge improvements in depression scores.”

Monroe and her colleagues believe that by working with horses—which are ultrasensitive to emotions and nonverbal communication—the veterans increased their emotional awareness, elevated their mood and better modulated their emotions.

“The biggest factor for these veterans was that working with the horses made them feel safe and secure,” says Monroe. “Most of these guys had never been on a horse in their lives, so to get up on a 1,000-pound animal pushes them beyond their comfort zone. But they were willing to try. And by putting themselves out there, they feel increased confidence and inner peace.

Despite such encouraging early results, Monroe and Heavenly Hooves faced some obstacles to establishing a more permanent program. One was their facility, an uncovered arena within Osceola Heritage Park at the mercy of fickle Florida weather. High temperatures shut the program down in the summer and the research takes a backseat to events like rodeos.

But now, thanks to the Osceola County Commission, which voted to construct a new facility, Heavenly Hooves is moving its headquarters to Chisolm Park, about 15 minutes from Medical City. Donor Mark Miller, owner of the now-closed Arabian Nights entertainment complex, has also contributed funds toward the new venture, which will be known as the Heavenly Hooves/ McCormick Research Institute (HHMRI). With plans for a covered arena, 22-stall barn and offices, the new facility will be designated an international research center for equestrian therapy and be the first in the nation to be built from the ground up in conjunction with a medical school.

Another obstacle is finding additional funding. “Building the facility is just one part of the equation,” says Monroe. Currently, an eight-week session costs about $1,000 per veteran, and a staff of three is required to run the program. Besides Monroe, the facility needs an equine instruction specialist and a clinical social worker, both of whom have to have experience working with veterans as well as the skills to handle horses—and money to pay their salaries.

Still, the stars seem to be aligned in an extraordinary way in favor of the project—an established therapeutic riding center moves, with the help of a local benefactor and a generous county, right into the backyard of an innovative new medical school that just happens to employ a doctor who is also an excellent horsewoman with both the passion and the know-how to lead research that could change the lives of thousands for the better.

“Our research results are so promising,” Monroe says. “We hope to eventually expand the amount of sessions and the number of veterans we can serve.” Equine-assisted therapy can also be effective for patients suffering from traumatic brain injuries, autism and other diagnoses, and Monroe hopes to ultimately serve them through HHMRI too.

In the meantime, though, she says she’s simply “humbled and excited about this opportunity.”

How You Can Help

To help support Dr. Monroe's work with equine-assisted therapy for veterans, please contact development officer Chip Roberts at the UCF College of Medicine at 407.266.1040 or charles.roberts@ucf.edu.

© University of Central Florida Foundation, Inc. 2017