War Horses for Veterans
Equine therapy treatment programs aids veterans in Oklahoma
Photo by iStock/LightFieldStudios
In old Western movies the sheriff rides back into town to take care of business astride his most trusted friend, the horse. Today, American soldiers returning from war are also finding horses to be a veteran’s most trusted friend due to a relatively new Equine Therapy treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Micah Moore, a Northwestern Electric Cooperative member from Laverne, Oklahoma, deployed twice to the war in Iraq—with the Oklahoma National Guard in 2003 during the initial push against Iraq and again in 2012 with the Virginia National Guard when Saddam Hussein was killed in Baghdad. He experienced the chaos and trauma of fellow GIs killed and wounded and, like many combat veterans, returned home suffering with the symptoms of PTSD.
Then he discovered War Horses for Veterans.
The U.S. has been at war almost constantly since Operation Desert Storm in 1990. The war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, has raged for over 18 years. The vast majority of combat soldiers return to civilian life with emotional scars that range from depression/suppression to family and societal adjustment problems, alcoholism, and suicide.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, an average of 20 combat veterans die from suicide a day. After Patrick Benson’s deployment to Iraq he decided, “War is much easier than everyday civilian life. Dealing with all those emotions that are typical for most people is a lot to take on coming from a combat environment.”
Benson didn’t know at the time what PTSD was—but he soon realized he suffered its effects in smells, sights, or events that brought back the horrors of combat. He had always worked with horses and found he was most content around them and with other combat veterans.
“You did a really good job fixing a pretty rank horse. But you didn’t realize that while you were fixing him, he was fixing you,” a friend complimented him.
Benson’s future became clear. If horses could help him with PTSD, they could likewise help other combat veterans.
In 2014, while working the ranch owned by Andy and Pat Brown in Stilwell, Kansas, he shared with them his view for a program using horses to help PTSD veterans. The Browns donated 17 acres of their spread to launch War Horses for Veterans, which now includes barns, stables, arenas, pastures, exercise areas, with a large bunkhouse and enclosed arena under construction. Managed by Benson and staffed largely by volunteers, the enterprise is funded through sponsors, donations, and grants, and will continue to aid veterans through a property endowment.
Equine therapy programs are a relatively new treatment for PTSD sufferers. New York’s Columbia University conducted a year-long study on their effectiveness. Its research indicated that horses and PTSD victims are very much alike in their heightened sense of environmental survival and that they feel calmer in ordered surroundings. The nature of horses and a veteran’s interaction with them in a safe and peaceful environment facilitates a veteran’s self-understanding and self-awareness and requires him or her to remain calm and devote their full attention to practicing proper skills useful in civilian life.
At War Horses for Veterans, the world melts away to allow participants to focus on the moment. Sessions are free to participants and are normally three days in length. A veteran may return as often as he or she likes, which results in a growing community centered on the ranch and its activities. Days are occupied in learning to work with, groom, and ride horses while socializing with other veterans in a brotherhood and sisterhood they so desperately need.
“Horses are the bridge. Veterans are their own best therapy,” Benson emphasized.
War Horses has successfully changed the lives of more than 300 veterans since its inception, many of whom continue to return as mentors and volunteers. Participants arrive from every state in the union, with the program expanding to include first responders such as police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel who witness violence and human tragedies and may also suffer from PTSD. However, military combat veterans, both male and female, make up the majority of participants.
Chief Warrant Officer Gary Llewellyn, an Army Scout helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1969, now assistant director to Benson, attended his first session of War Horses and it changed his life.
“The experience has made me whole again,” he said.
Al Dobbs served 19 years in the Army, including deployment to Afghanistan where he was an engineer charged with route clearance. Locating and disposing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), is one of the most hazardous combat positions in the war. He witnessed a number of fellow soldiers blown up and killed.
Although at first skeptical of the effectiveness of Equine Therapy, he fell in love with horses his first day at the ranch and changed his perspective.
“It was another day not to be afraid, a day to get over worries of isolation,” he said.
During the 2015 Battle of Falluja in Iraq, Will Hood, now a retired Navy chaplain, flew over 60 medevac missions to evacuate the dead and wounded, many of whom were missing arms and legs, some dying on the flight out. He returned home with PTSD, attended a session of War Horses, and stayed on as a volunteer “senior coach” and program developer to counsel veterans in developing relationships with family, friends, society, and God.
“You might have some brokenness,” he said, “but you don’t have to keep it. Horses are great teachers for where you really are in the healing process.”
After working through his own PTSD, John Hammond returned to help other vets and spent one entire weekend session talking down a veteran contemplating suicide.
Horses, Benson concludes, possess the power to crack any warrior’s shell and restore him or her to civilian life. Veterans who thought they would never recover from PTSD and be able to bond and feel personal connections again have taken their experiences at War Horses for Veterans out into the rest of their lives to make themselves whole again.
“This is the homecoming I never got!” exclaimed one veteran.