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Finding a way home on the ranch

Posted: June 7, 2016 1:51 p.m.
Updated: June 7, 2016 1:51 p.m.
Emmanuel Perdomo walks with Captain Jack Sparrow through Perdomo's "world" -- a layout of foam pool noodles and PVC pipes that therapist Katie Ryan asked Perdomo to build -- during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze. Emmanuel Perdomo walks with Captain Jack Sparrow through Perdomo's "world" -- a layout of foam pool noodles and PVC pipes that therapist Katie Ryan asked Perdomo to build -- during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo walks with Captain Jack Sparrow through Perdomo's "world" -- a layout of foam pool noodles and PVC pipes that therapist Katie Ryan asked Perdomo to build -- during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo, right, and Nancy Pitchford-Zhe, left, put a bridle on Captain Jack Sparrow after a mock therapy session in the arena at Blue Star Ranch in Saugus on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze. Emmanuel Perdomo, right, and Nancy Pitchford-Zhe, left, put a bridle on Captain Jack Sparrow after a mock therapy session in the arena at Blue Star Ranch in Saugus on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo, right, and Nancy Pitchford-Zhe, left, put a bridle on Captain Jack Sparrow after a mock therapy session in the arena at Blue Star Ranch in Saugus on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo writes his "burdens" on a sticky note on an inflatable ball during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze. Emmanuel Perdomo writes his "burdens" on a sticky note on an inflatable ball during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo writes his "burdens" on a sticky note on an inflatable ball during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo greets Captain Jack Sparrow at the start of a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze. Emmanuel Perdomo greets Captain Jack Sparrow at the start of a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo greets Captain Jack Sparrow at the start of a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo brushes his hand across Captain Jack Sparrow's jaw as he talks with therapist Katie Ryan and Blue Star Ranch executive director Nancy Pitchford-Zhe during a mock therapy session at the Ranch in Saugus on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze. Emmanuel Perdomo brushes his hand across Captain Jack Sparrow's jaw as he talks with therapist Katie Ryan and Blue Star Ranch executive director Nancy Pitchford-Zhe during a mock therapy session at the Ranch in Saugus on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo brushes his hand across Captain Jack Sparrow's jaw as he talks with therapist Katie Ryan and Blue Star Ranch executive director Nancy Pitchford-Zhe during a mock therapy session at the Ranch in Saugus on March 30. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo explains the layout of his "world:" a layout of foam pool noodles and PVC pipes that therapist Katie Ryan asked Perdomo to build -- during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze. Emmanuel Perdomo explains the layout of his "world:" a layout of foam pool noodles and PVC pipes that therapist Katie Ryan asked Perdomo to build -- during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
Emmanuel Perdomo explains the layout of his "world:" a layout of foam pool noodles and PVC pipes that therapist Katie Ryan asked Perdomo to build -- during a mock therapy session at Blue Star Ranch. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.
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Emmanuel Perdomo stands in the middle of the arena, writing his burdens and blessings on a sticky note before attaching them to an inflatable ball.

He sets the ball down, and walks over to Captain Jack Sparrow -- no, not the swashbuckling Disney movie pirate. Captain Jack is an Appaloosa Gelding horse, and he’s here to help Perdomo with equine therapy for veterans.

“We’re designed...explicitly for this need for veterans,” says Nancy Pitchford-Zhe, the executive director of Blue Star Ranch in Saugus. The ranch provides free equine assisted therapy to veterans of all ages, from any war, and their families. Pitchford-Zhe has been practicing equine therapy for more than 25 years, and married Vietnam veteran John Zhe in 2008.

“It’s crazy that you’re going to talk to a horse,” Perdomo says. He was skeptical his first time to Blue Star, but has since completed the 10 week program and has come back to volunteer as the ranch’s outreach coordinator.

But it worked for Perdomo, who tried several traditional methods of treatment for PTSD, insomnia and anxiety after returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with the U.S. Army.

“This is readjustment counseling that actually works,” Perdomo says.

Blue Star Ranch operates as a 501(c)3 non-profit, and raises funds to provide its services to veterans and their families free of charge. Perdomo is their first program graduate, and they’re looking to serve more veterans, as well as veterans to volunteer to spread the word to others in need.

“All they have to do is show that they have served,” Pitchford-Zhe says.

Katie Ryan, Blue Star’s licensed marriage and family therapist, and Pitchford-Zhe lead veterans through weekly, hour-long therapy sessions with one of four horses and two miniature donkeys at the ranch.

“There’s something about walking around in the arena with a thousand pound animal,” says Ryan.

Ryan says that horses are very good at mirroring human emotions back to the veterans.

“The horse gives us the feedback that we need to help the veteran,” Ryan says. Because horses in the wild are prey animals, they’re “very vigilant” says Pitchford-Zhe.

“Soldiers are very vigilant also,” she says, and the horses pick up on that.

When Perdomo first began therapy sessions at Blue Star, the hills surrounding the ranch reminded him of his deployments to the Middle East, and he worried that someone might attack if he wasn’t watching.

Pitchford-Zhe and Ryan encouraged him to just talk to the horse during sessions, leaving them alone in the arena together. Again, he was skeptical -- Perdomo had struggled with talking in traditional treatment sessions.

“You can only talk so much about all that stuff because no one really wants to talk about it,” he says.

But something was different. He didn’t feel judged like he had at hospitals and other treatment facilities when he was in the arena, talking to the horse.

“And in his own weird way, [the horse] said it’s OK,” Perdomo says.

 

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