I’m all in for “anything horse.”

Riding, grooming, sharing a horse’s space, stroking a muzzle, emanating every fiber of love of my being for the creature, whispering sweet nothings into his or her ear.

This weekend, however, I ventured something hands-off—I audited a fundraiser for Wild Hearts Horses for Heroes, a therapeutic equestrian program for veterans. On a gorgeous autumn morning, nearly 40 people came together at Indian Creek Stables in Carver, MA—veterans of the Program, participants with unreconciled childhood trauma, and horsey people with their own therapeutic equestrian programs for youth-at risk as far from home as Florida.

Twenty “auditors” assumed seats in chairs that stretched unilaterally across one side of the arena and within three sessions over a six-hour period, we observed Tim Hayes, renown equine therapeutic clinician and author of Riding Homeask 12 individuals to perform groundwork tasks with their horse-partner to attain increased self-awareness and healing over a past traumatic event.

The most moving interaction occurred when Tim asked a former combat veteran (I’ll call her “Sheila”) to pet her horse and lift each of her horse’s feet. This exercise, Tim told us, tends to “bring stuff up.”

“Sheila,” Tim said, “pick up each of your horse’s feet.”

“No,” she replied, adamantly.

The feel-good bubble infiltrating the arena burst. Tim remained close to where Sheila stood, unaffected and relaxed, standing with his hands loosely clasped across his front. His patience was a mile long. Some moments later, he began to probe Sheila for the reasons why she refused to pick up the horse’s feet.

“I’m nervous and anxious,” she said.

“Weren’t expecting to be in front of all these people, were you?” Tim reasoned.

Sheila began to cry. The two other veterans enrolled in the Wild Hearts program looked on, their hands resting on some part of their horses’ body—neck, withers; identifying with Sheila’s emotions. My heart was breaking.

Tim nudged, “Why are you crying, Sheila?”

“I get overwhelmed when I’m faced with doing something new,” she replied. “It’s too much at once. No one understands.”

“Well,” Tim said, “We can take it slow. We’ll tackle it one foot at a time.”

Sheila stood unresponsive and still for several moments. Then, she wiped the tears from her face and reached for one of her horse’s front hooves and pulled at it. The horse lowered his head, nudged her thigh with his muzzle and lifted his foot. I exhaled the deep breath I was holding.

Tim encouraged her. “You’re doing it, Sheila.”

Sheila smiled so broadly at Tim people in the next county could see it. She proceeded to move around the horse and lift his three other hooves. Us auditors did everything we could to refrain from cheering and clapping. Just didn’t feel right doing something like that.

For the duration of her session, Sheila’s smile remained pasted on her face. It was, indeed, a beautiful thing. She said when new and overwhelming things come at her in the future, she’d remember picking up the horse’s hooves one at a time and replicate the process.

The night before I attended the fundraiser, I started a chapter in Riding Home called “The Walking Wounded—Horses for Heroes.” Let me share with you the initial two paragraphs to place these combat veteran’s experiences in context:

Blood and pieces of flesh were everywhere, impossible to avoid, so she walked right through them. Her job was repairing radios in medevac helicopters that brought back the dead and wounded. She had witnessed the unthinkable for months. Each time, she felt herself mentally pushing back against the horror that fought to enter her mind.

She forced it out long enough so she could do her job, but the images always returned: eyes hanging from blood-oozing sockets, severed arms resting on the chests of men who prayed they could be reattached, while their buddies held their good arms and kept screaming, “Stay with me, you’re going to be okay!”

There is Bad and Good in this world and the Good attempts to take care of those who’ve experienced the Bad. This is what Tim and Wild Hearts Horses for Heroes do. They’re Good people armed with the healing power of their horses who administer to those who have experienced the Bad.

Horses, Humans and Healing—what a profound combination.

Tim and yours truly.

Follow Wild Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Program on Twitter or Julie on LinkedIn to learn how you can participate or audit an equestrian therapy clinic, just like I did, to behold the amazing healing transformation that can transpire between horses and humans.

About the Author

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents, a story about proving her capability on a Wyoming dude ranch. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn or her website nurtureismynature.com.