Since the publication of my book RIDING HOME ~ The Power of Horses to Heal, I have discovered many remarkable programs that utilize horses to heal a number of varied emotional wounds of men woman and children. One such organization which I recently had the honor of visiting and observing is Saratoga WarHorse, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Saratoga Springs, New York, which helps military veterans heal from the devastating emotional effects of Post Traumatic Stress.
The emotional healing that begins with the nonverbal nonjudgmental acceptance of a horse enables veterans to feel safe enough to be themselves.
This breakthrough Connection helps bridge the barrier of shame and isolation created by Post Traumatic Stress and enables the veteran to go on and continue to recover often utilizing emotional expressive therapy with another human. Establishing a positive relationship with a horse requires the awareness and recognition of a mutual trust between horse and human. A horse can, therefore, become a crucial and even life-saving component in the beginning stages of Post Traumatic Stress recovery.
Saratoga WarHorse’s success with veterans has been remarkable and I believe its profound results can be attributed to its devoted founder and program director Bob Nevins. According to Nevins, it was a news report about the record number of suicide rates of military veterans that started him on this path about five years ago.
These guys are falling through the cracks, and that’s why we have a suicide issue. When they make this connection with the horse, it’s as if this emotional circuit breaker resets itself and it turns out to be a very powerful experience.
Bob Nevins served in Vietnam as a medevac pilot for the 101st Airborne and was wounded in action in 1971. In 2011, he retired from his 24-year career as an airline captain and using the personal savings from his 401k, dedicated his life full-time to establishing and running the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation.
For many veterans, admitting to someone that they are suffering the painful effects of Post Traumatic Stress is often impossible. If one finally summons the courage to acknowledge their Post Traumatic Stress, asking for help can be just as difficult. When Bob, himself a combat veteran recovering from Post Traumatic Stress, answers a veterans call for help there is an immediate feeling of trust that would otherwise be extremely difficult to establish.
Once a veteran accepts the help offered by Bob, he or she is flown to the program at no cost and with all the expenses paid for by Saratoga WarHorse and its sponsors. Veterans arrive and are immediately met and chauffeured to their hotel where they meet with Bob, his hand-picked team, and other veterans who will be attending the program, and they all have dinner together. Groups are purposefully small ranging from six to eight participants.
There are no forms or insurance papers to fill out, or questions about a soldiers war stories. At dinner, Bob tells them the program does not involve talking about or reliving their painful traumatic experiences. They are there to feel safe, trusting, and experience the emotional healing breakthrough that comes from establishing a relationship with a horse.
As one veteran told me,
War kills your sense of trust. When I came home, I didn’t know if somebody wanted to be with me to make me feel good or to make themselves feel good. My horse didn’t know me from before the war. All he knew was what he saw when we met. He didn’t want anything from me, didn’t expect anything. I didn’t have to talk about my feelings; I could just feel them, and he was okay with it. He opened me up. When I realized he had started to trust me, it was the first time since I had come home from the war that I felt like me, like I had gotten my old self back.
Thousands of men and women have selflessly traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan, where they confronted death and horror on a daily basis. They survived unimaginable acts of war only to come home to a life of emotional trauma, broken relationships, paralyzing depression, hopelessness, or suicide. Prescription drugs and traditional talk therapy have repeatedly failed to break through to the psychic wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In my research for RIDING HOME ~ The Power of Horses to Heal I discovered that in 2013, both the Wounded Warrior Project and a study from George Washington University estimated that there were between 300,000 and 400,000 veterans in the United States suffering from PTSD. These findings also reported that the cost of treating war veterans with traditional talk therapy and prescription drugs has grown, with spending to date of more than $2 billion of taxpayer funds.
I also discovered that in 2011, the New York Times reported that widely prescribed drugs for treating veterans with PTSD were not only ineffective but caused serious side effects.
A more recent study reported in a New York Times article from July 2016 stated that every day 22 veterans take their own lives. Nevins told me that on more than one occasion he received a call from a veteran who had gone through the Saratoga WarHorse program, returned home, and said, “Before I came to your program I had decided to commit suicide. Now I want to live again. Thank you.”
Saratoga WarHorse has been around for only a few years, but it has quickly and dramatically demonstrated an unmistakable ability to help in the healing of our country’s returning war veterans. Its methods are often faster, cheaper, and more effective than many of the more traditional procedures and medications. Thousands of lives could be helped, maybe even saved, if only there was more awareness of, support, and resources for programs like the Saratoga WarHorse.
About the Author
Tim Hayes is the author RIDING HOME: The Power of Horses to Heal. It is this amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves that is accessible to everyone and found in the pages this book. Every book ordered will benefit veterans with PTSD, children with autism, and children of families in need. Learn more at ridinghome.com. For Tim’s clinics, private sessions, books, DVD’s and more articles go hayesisforhorses.com.