KELLER, Texas (AP) - Just blocks from suburban sprawl sits an oasis of rolling green pastures and grazing horses, where seldom is heard a discouraging word.
Or so it must seem to the war veterans who arrive here for therapy.
Robert MacTamhais, a medic in Iraq from December 2008 to July 2009, started coming here shortly after a fire alarm at work sent him into a panic attack. The alarm sparked a flashback to the warning sirens that sounded when his base came under mortar attack in Iraq.
"I had to go home," MacTamhais said. "I couldn't concentrate on anything, much less work."
Rocky Top Therapy Center recently received a $290,000 state grant to serve military veterans and their families dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological issues, including those associated with combat deployments and adjustment to civilian life.
Over the last decade, about 2 million troops have deployed to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Studies show that about one in five has symptoms of PTSD, depression, traumatic brain injury, or some combination of the three.
In 2011, the number of suicides among active-duty soldiers hit an all-time high of 164, up from 159 in 2010, according to data recently released by the Army. Both the defense and veterans affairs departments have been putting more resources into behavioral health programs aimed at active-duty service members and recent war veterans.
Therapists have been using horses to work with the disabled for decades. But in 2006, a pilot program in Fort Myer, Va., showed success treating veterans with both physical and emotional issues.
Horses for Heroes, a nationwide program, was developed in 2007 by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, now known as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
Horses for Heroes programs have since spread around the country, including two centers funded by the Texas Veterans Commission - Rocky Top and another near Austin.
Brooke Knox, director of the Rocky Top program, said it caters to two types of veterans. A traditional riding program is offered to disabled veterans who want to work on physical exercise and balance. The newer equine-assisted therapy is a nonriding program that works with veterans - like MacTamhais - who need mental health counseling but may not respond well to traditional psychological therapy or who need extra support.
Many haven't felt good in a long time. "They can come out here and just unplug. . You give them that hope back," Knox said. "We bring them out here and they get to pick and choose which horse to work with. They'll typically choose the horse that shows interest in them."
MacTamhais served with the National Guard in the early 1990s and re-enlisted in 2007. As a medic, riding in convoys throughout southeastern Iraq, he treated the wounded and was often exposed to roadside attacks and mortar fire.
Shortly after his discharge from the Guard in October 2010, MacTamhais was diagnosed with PTSD at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Fort Worth. It was there he also got a flier about the Rocky Top program.
On a recent sunny afternoon, MacTamhais spent an hour with Mel, a gentle, chestnut-colored gelding. "What I basically do is groom the horse, clean its hooves and walk with him," MacTamhais said as he slowly ran his hands along Mel's spine.
Mel is a good listener. "There's no negative feedback. There's nobody saying you need to do this and this and this," MacTamhais said. "I'm just able to talk and vent and get it out to where it's not on my mind anymore."
MacTamhais, a locksmith from Hurst, has done more traditional types of therapy. But "talking with the horse is what's helped me the best," he said.
Horses are naturally intuitive and can tell when someone is feeling stressed out or repressing feelings, Knox said. "They're a one-time lie detector test," she said. "And that's one of the best ways to utilize the horses."
The veteran might claim he's doing fine. But the therapist can tell how the veteran is doing just by the way the horse responds. "If his horse doesn't think everything's fine, it's not me confronting him, and it's not the spouse or the boss who's confronting him," Knox said. "No matter what's going on, it comes out in the relationship with the horse."
Knox likes the veterans to do certain simple exercises, like walking a horse with a lead rope. That can lead to frustration if the veteran can't get the horse to respond. He can't just tug the horse, a full-grown animal that can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
"And I'll say, 'You're not going to move that horse unless that horse wants you to move it,'" Knox said. "So he has to get himself together and show that he's a good and kind leader for that horse to trust him."
Learning how to manage stress and not overreact to situations can be a valuable lesson for veterans. Used to the discipline of military life, many are now experiencing frustrations in the civilian work world or their personal lives.
Knox seems particularly suited for Horses for Heroes. Growing up in Dallas, she learned as a child to ride horses at her grandmother's home in Rockwall. She was married to a Navy service member for 10 years and has worked with the military as a counselor in a variety of programs.
Her knowledge of military life helps her gain the trust of veterans, Knox said. In addition, Knox is working with an Iraq war veteran who is studying counseling.
Jeff Hensley, who spent 20 years in the military on active duty and in the reserves, is finishing up his master's degree in counseling at the University of North Texas. The Frisco father of three is doing his internship with Horses for Heroes and plans to continue working with veterans.
Hensley hasn't been diagnosed with PTSD, but he did need counseling to help him readjust to civilian life. His children went through Operation Healthy Reunions, a program that offers counseling to veterans and their families to help them with adjustment issues.
After Hensley's daughter got into a horse riding program, he saw how her mood improved. When he heard that Rocky Top was offering an internship with its Horses for Heroes program, it seemed like a perfect fit.
It's been a good fit for MacTamhais, as well. When he first started working with Mel, he rated his stress level at a 7 or higher on a scale of 10. Now, he says, "It's down around 3."
"It's very calming, very calming," MacTamhais said to Knox.
"Don't look at me," Knox said with a laugh. "Mel's the therapist."