RIFLE — Allen Orcutt walks stooped over, with the help of a walker, when he’s at home at the Colorado State Veterans Home in Rifle.
But after the Vietnam War veteran was helped onto a horse Tuesday and guided into the arena of the Riding Institute of Disabled Equestrians, or RIDE, facility north of Silt, he sat tall in the saddle.
Under a clear blue sky and quickly warming sunshine, some of Orcutt’s fellow members of the U.S. Marines Medium Helicopter Squadron 164 clapped and shouted encouragement as Orcutt and his horse were led around the arena while patriotic songs played over loudspeakers.
“This is a great show,” said Dr. Alan Schramm of New York, a helicopter pilot who served with Orcutt during the war. “It’s very important physiologically to be able to get out and do things like this.”
Schramm said the Rifle home where Orcutt lives is “wonderful, and they have a great staff to organize something like this. It’s his home, it’s where he lives.”
A second nursing home resident, John Wheelersburg, a Korean War veteran, also rode a horse around the arena. At one point, RIDE staff and volunteers carefully led both men through a short “race,” shouting and cheering them on.
Activities director Deana Jacoby said the two men and other vets visit the RIDE facility about every other week for short horseback rides. Each vet’s physician approves the activity, Jacoby added, and family members are involved as well.
“We want to do these types of events where they get outside so they have a little autonomy and ability to move around,” she said.
RIDE co-owner Dee Stiers said that while most disabled or handicapped riders they help are there for more therapeutic reasons, “We just want them to have fun.
“They get to use their muscles a little to stay in the saddle,” she added. “The horse really does all the work.”
The home started taking vets to the nonprofit therapeutic riding program last year, Jacoby added.
“RIDE is great to work with,” she said. “They only charge a nominal fee; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Orcutt grew up around horses, she said, so he is no stranger to the animals.
After his 30- to 40-minute ride, Orcutt sat in the shade for lunch and said the best part about his ride was “I never fell off.”
The fact his Marine comrades were present was a surprise to Orcutt. A reunion of Vietnam-era pilots and crewmen is scheduled for San Diego in September, but Orcutt was not going to be able to make it. So, with the help of his wife, Barbara, of Glenwood Springs, and Jacoby, five pilots and a senior crew chief who flew with Orcutt made a surprise visit — dubbed “Operation Orcutt” — to the Rifle home this week. His fellow Marines came from Colorado, New York, Minnesota, Florida, Washington and Wyoming.
Along with the horse ride, activities and outings planned included an ice cream social, barbecue at the RIDE facility, dinner and “carousing at local Rifle bistros and dives,” according to a written summary of the activities.
“And a lot of reminiscing between the group of Vietnam veterans,” it read.
Orcutt has also written his third book, titled “No Rest Elsewhere.” It chronicles his life and experiences as a young Marine helicopter pilot in 1968 to a retired Marine living in the Colorado mountains.