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Riding toward recovery

Alba Tanner, an Army specialist from Hammond, La., rode in tanks in Iraq until a roadside bomb tore out his armpit and took his right arm's full use.

Maggie, part quarter horse and part Percheron, rode in weddings and parades until her owner decided to donate her to a therapeutic riding program in Odessa.

The two met there one recent sunny morning, the stoic horse tasked with helping the wounded soldier.

"All right Alba, how are you feeling today?" called out Beckie Wolf, a riding instructor at the Quantum Leap horse farm.

Tanner, 21, spelled out the answer.

"F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S."

A remarkable statement for a baby-faced warrior stuck in hospitals since late August but believable still, as birds fluttered happily and the only immediate hazards were stinking mounds of manure.

Before the Army and Iraq - where it was so hot he joked he lived "about 3 miles from hell" - Tanner rode horses on a big piece of land at home and practiced writing with his left hand because his mother said "you never know when you'll have to use it."

And here he was, using his left hand to steady himself atop Maggie, his right hand frustratingly dormant from nerve damage. He breathed in through his nose, then out through his mouth, just as the teacher instructed.

"The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed the horse is and the better your muscles feel," said Lisa Lendoiro, a horse farm volunteer who walked alongside Tanner and the horse as they meandered around the grassy riding ring.

Tanner considered the hours at the peaceful farm a getaway pass for him and two other Iraq veterans being treated at the James A. Haley Medical Center in Tampa. He never thought of horses as healers.

Yet at Quantum Leap and riding centers around the country, wounded members of the military are turning to therapeutic horse riding to rebuild some of what they've lost. Riding horses improves balance, boosts confidence and strengthens memory skills, said Quantum Leap owner Edie Dopking.

Horses as extroverts

The farm provides a non-threatening environment, a place where no one ogles at skin purpled by burns or legs cut short at the knees.

"This is a nice first venture out for those guys who have some disfigurement," Dopking said. "It turns their focus from their disability to their abilities."

She looks for animals who, in human terms, are extroverts and open to new experiences. By nature, horses are not comfortable around wheelchairs and medical contraptions, but they can adapt through conditioning, she said.

Smokey, a buckskin-colored horse with a sore front leg, took instantly to Marine Cpl. Chris Malone, a 21-year-old whose right leg was shattered into "little itty, bitty pieces" by a rocket in Ramadi and amputated by doctors 3 inches above the knee.

Malone, raised on a Texas ranch, had not been back on a horse since the summer trauma. But he mounted the unflinching horse from his wheelchair in seconds, an act so smooth and quick it seemed to defy his limb's missing bottom half.

He looked skeptical when, as he and Smokey promenaded across the riding ring, Wolf instructed him to drop the reins and practice a backstroke motion as a balance test. He hesitated, shook his head and then fashioned his arms like a windmill through the air.

"How does she feel to you, Chris?" Wolf asked.

"She's not bad," he said. "A little stubborn."

Part of Smokey's magic worked undetected. Because a horse's gait closely mimics the human stride, the riding helped re-educate Malone's brain about where his leg had been, Dopking said. The stimulation would ease his adjustment to the prosthetic limb he was scheduled to get back at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. Then Malone expected to return to Texas and his own horses.

Tanner, who was guiding Maggie through two poles and around a tree as part of a memory exercise, already felt the pain in his shoulder dissipating as he bounced up and down on her saddle.

"I can't tell you how thankful I am for your service," a farm volunteer was telling him.

The blast had blown him from his vehicle, killing its driver. Tanner's broken jaw had healed by now, but shrapnel metal still decorated his insides.

Weighing on him daily were the unknowns of his future - when his bum arm would get better, whether he'd be able to get out of the Army and maybe become a fireman.

But up on Maggie, for those blissful, dignified, fleeting 30 minutes, he said he had forgotten about it all.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

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