Horse sense helps veterans move forward

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Geronimo stands with a buddy at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Ann Collins)

When someone returns from military service with wounds seen and unseen, we may not know how to help. Fortunately, horses do.

This might seem counterintuitive, considering how many battles we humans have ridden horses into over the millennia, but humanity’s partnership with the horse continues to evolve. The physical tasks of caring for horses get veterans outdoors, moving, and doing something tangible that makes sense. But it’s more than that.

Horses are nonjudgmental, profoundly empathetic, and delightfully individualistic even though they are also social creatures. A horse may not comprehend the particulars of what a veteran has been through, but you can bet that horse knows how he feels. The horse likely has war stories of his own: of trauma, injury, self-preservation, and survival. When horses allow you into their world, the healing goes both ways.

Jockey Red Pollard said in the movie “Seabiscuit” that he, the trainer, and the owner — three men of very different backgrounds, each with his own demons — didn’t take a broken-down, underdog horse and fix him. “He fixed us … and I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.”

The therapeutic riding center where I volunteer as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, facilitates just this sort of work with horses and veterans. We’re having a special event called Stock the Barn 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, to raise funds to do even more. Let me tell you about a few of our equine warriors.

Pirate, a big, red retired racehorse with incredibly kind eyes, could have spent his retirement at a stud farm but opted to come to Summit instead. He’s got a host of aches and pains left over from his racing days. When I see him walking across the pasture, I hear him say, with each step, “I’m moving … I’m moving.” This summer, as I dealt with some of my own pains, he would regularly ask: “Are you moving, too?” A horse holds you accountable like no one else does.

• When I first met Geronimo, the young mustang reminded me of James Dean … a wildly handsome rebel without a cause who felt others just didn’t “get” him. His resistance to cooperating with director Allison Wheaton, along with a few scuffles with the other horses, frequently landed him in timeout, but she continued to work with him. The skills Geronimo needed to gain, Allison says, are the same skills some veterans with PTSD need to be able to go to the grocery store. Veterans can see themselves in a mustang’s hypervigilance. Last winter, just by his presence, Geronimo comforted a fellow volunteer through a stressful work transition. Now he’s connecting with our veterans. His journey still has its ups and downs; progress is rarely linear. They “get” him.

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Biff, like the veterans he works with, has had to work on learning new ways of responding to the world around him. (Photo by Meg Miller)

• Then there’s Biff. The Gypsy Vanner joined us this summer and proceeded to leave bite marks and bruises on just about everyone before being put in a pen by himself, but within sight of the rest of the herd. Somehow or other, Lakota — another young mustang adopted from the Bureau of Land Management who has been doing some serious training of his own — and Geronimo let themselves into the pen with Biff. The three of them have been hanging out without incident, and all three have been working with veterans. Biff has decided he wants to keep learning.

If a veteran you know is struggling to find a way forward, there’s probably a horse out there who needs a buddy, too. Let’s leave no one behind.

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