Old Lyme - After she rode a horse at a fast gait for the first time, Katye Zwiefka cried.
She threw her arms in the air and said, "I did it!" Zwiefka compared it to the joy she felt as a child on Christmas morning.
"It had been such a long time since I had that feeling or anything like it - just that excitement and that thrill, that joy that's untainted by the world," she said of her experience cantering last summer.
Zwiefka, who served in the Marine Corps, belongs to a women's riding group at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding. Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, she turned to the center two years ago. She and another veteran in the group, Khaylan Widener, said bonding with the horses and the other equestrians has helped them cope with the anxiety and isolation they have felt since leaving the military.
"It's hard to make connections with people," said Zwiefka, a 30-year-old who lives in Norwich. "It's hard to feel comfortable in my skin and my surroundings and to really just enjoy the moment for what it is.
"Being here, I'm really able to do that," she said of High Hopes. "It's beautiful out here and I'm able to enjoy every moment."
Zwiefka and Widener, an Army veteran, met in counseling at the Norwich Vet Center, run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. With her new friend's encouragement, Widener began riding at the center.
She, too, was dealing with PTSD after a tour in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Eight of her friends died in attacks, and Widener said she felt let down by her unit and didn't have the support she needed.
"When I leave here, I just feel better," Widener, 28, of Norwich, said at the riding center. "I feel like it's a chance to work through my issues without being judged. You can be yourself. It's more therapeutic than talking sometimes."
Widener, who grew up in Groton, served from 2005 to 2009. She fell off of a fuel truck in Iraq when her unit was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and suffered a traumatic brain injury. It was one of many close calls.
On Friday, she walked alongside a horse being ridden by an autistic teenager. Widener began helping with lessons for children and teens at the center in January. Many of the children at High Hopes have physical and psychological disabilities, such as autism, attention deficit disorder and cerebral palsy.
Interacting with them, and the other volunteers, Widener said, has helped her to be more sociable.
"I feel like it brings out a positive part of me that I forgot I had," she said. "I used to be a social butterfly before I went in the military. And when I got back I was so withdrawn. I wouldn't go anywhere where there were a lot of people. I had so much pent up inside and I didn't know who to talk to."
Widener said that while she is still dealing with PTSD, she feels she has come a long way since her first lesson at the center a year and a half ago. She said she fights every day to get better for her 3-year-old son and husband.
"You lose hope and you look down on yourself when you're suffering with depression and PTSD," she said. "This is a way to challenge yourself and show yourself that you can be really good at something, you can strive for something and accomplish goals again.
"I'm trying to get help any way I can," she added, "and this is one way I know that will help me."
In her lesson Friday, Zwiefka practiced her riding skills in a ring outside. The lesson is something she looks forward to all week.
"When I go to sleep, usually I have a lot of nightmares. I wake up soaked in sweat and I don't want to go back to sleep," she said. "What helps me get out of that mindset, I realized, is to think about riding. I think about the smell of my horse, how it feels when I'm grooming and how relaxed I am."
Four veterans go to High Hopes, all on scholarships offered by the center. High Hopes is working with the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services to severely injured service members, to get a grant that would pay for 10 rides for each veteran.
Liz Adams, the program director, has been working with veterans for four years and would like more veterans to ride at the center. Developing a relationship with a horse and having control over something that's so large can help empower veterans with trust issues, she said.
Zwiefka said she is still trying to process the emotions she ignored while serving from 2002 to 2007. She deployed to Iraq in 2006.
"You don't have time to deal with it, nor is there a place to really deal with it," she said. "So you push it down, live your life, and all of a sudden it comes rushing out. I just got to the point where I didn't want to trust anybody. I didn't want to be around anybody and I didn't want anybody to have to deal with me either."
Zwiefka said she's not a quitter, so feeling like she wanted to give up was something new.
"It was awful," she said. "Coming here, it was really in a way, lifesaving."