BROOKSVILLE — Anna saved Franco Caro’s life. And Caro saved hers. But this love story isn’t what you think. Anna is a rescued dapple quarter horse. And Caro is a combat veteran Marine who tried to take his own life nine times.
Now they work together at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center, in eastern Hernando County, helping veterans and special needs children find inner peace while working through their challenges.
Caro has a sixth sense when it comes to horses. “The best way to understand it is I’m like the horse whisperer,” he said. He knows when one is off a bit, uncharacteristically ornery, or just having a bad day. It might come down to an ailment not readily visible. And he will spend time analyzing and problem solving to get the horse back on track.
He didn’t realize he had the gift until three years ago when he was fighting his own demons. “I got around horses and became like a little kid,” he explained. His wife pushed him to look into working with equines.
Now a standard at Emerald M, Caro has a message for other veterans who are struggling. It isn’t them, he said.
Jonathon White, a former combat Marine who interned at Emerald M while working toward his degree in social work, brought Caro in. Veterans, White explained, particularly those who have been in combat, have a special bond between them that isn’t understood in civilian life.
“When I got out, one told me ‘you’re not alone.’ It took awhile for me to understand what he meant,” he said. “Sometimes that’s all you need to hear.”
He explained that veterans who return from serving their country experience an adjustment more profound than many might think. A lifeline is often found in another vet who lived through a similar experience.
“When you get out of the military, you scramble for things to do,” added Caro. “You scramble for a purpose. You scramble for a reason to exist.”
Yet, when they get around the horses, something magical happens.
“Equine therapy works because it takes my brain away from dissecting myself,” he said.
The bond between animals and humans who are struggling, whether physically or mentally or both, is well documented. Yet for many years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, denied that animal therapy worked for veterans.
Survivors like Caro, who suffered a back injury when his platoon was bombed in Iraq, are expected to live out their final days on prescription medications that numb the pain.
But that isn’t living.
Caro and White speak the same language, often finish each other’s sentences. And they are eternally connected by their experiences.
They became a lifeline for each other and now, as part of Emerald M, they are lifelines for other vets, especially those who served in combat. “That’s what makes it different for us,” Caro went on. “We know what they’re going through.”
Lisa Michelangelo, a physical therapist and co-owner of Emerald M, said the therapy they offer is life-changing. She works with children with autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, physical trauma and more.
“I grew up in a horse racing family back in Columbus, Ohio,” Michelangelo explained, “and both my daughters had been riding horses for many years.”
Her passion eventually led the family away from their home in New Tampa to Dade City, where they could have horses on their property.
Michelangelo then began studying hippotherapy, a technique used by physical, occupational, and speech therapists for rehabilitative purposes.
“Hippotherapy is unique, as it uses the horse’s movement to obtain improved core strength, flexibility, gait improvements, social interaction, and improved coordination, just to name a few,” she explained. “The horse mimics our human walking pattern. Their pelvis and legs move in the same way as humans when we walk on the ground.”
Emerald M was the result of her passion, launching its therapeutic services on five acres in 2014 in Pasco County. They moved the nonprofit to Goldsmith Road, in Brooksville, on a lush 20-acre ranch last year.
Originally launched as therapy for children, Emerald M has helped many with varying physical and mental challenges.
Yvonne Clanton is a mom of two special children who are finally striving with the help of equine therapy. Sarah, 12, suffers from cerebral palsy, is blind, nonverbal and now learning to walk. Her brother, 15-year old Sam, is partially blind and also has cerebral palsy. Sarah rides a horse at Emerald M three times a week. Sam does better on the Equicizer, an electronic horse that helps him work his balance and core. Both children have made dramatic progress.
“Sarah arrived at the farm almost exactly one year ago with the inability to walk, was nonverbal, and completely blind,” Michelangelo remembered. “Mom had tried all other therapies, but had little to no success to improve the child’s ability to walk.”
But miracles happen every day at the ranch. “Today we are happy to report that she is able to walk while holding the hand of one person. She has improved her receptive language tremendously, and is increasing her vocalization,” Michelangelo said.
Perhaps most inspiring is Sarah’s physical and emotional affection toward the horse she works with. “Before she didn’t want anyone to touch her, and she definitely didn’t want to touch the horse.”
It was a natural progression for Emerald M to branch into Veterans services which began in September of 2017. “We have serviced over 130 veterans and their family members from all over the country,” Michelangelo said. “We are continuing to expand our veteran program to target local family members and veterans right here in Hernando.”
“A lot of these vets think it’s not going to do anything for them,” Caro said.
But Caro and White are proof it works.
Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center is at 4022 Goldsmith Road. For more information, call 352-247-or visit https://emeraldmtherapeuticridingcenter.org.