Healing Through Horseback Riding
As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, we reflect on how the American Quarter Horse has helped heal the hearts of wounded warriors.
June 25, 2016
Compiled by Shiley Blackwell, summer 2016 communications and digital marketing intern
The Fourth of July is an exciting time with celebrations across the United States. As longtime partners in horse shows, rodeos and parades, American Quarter Horses will be seen at many of these Independence Day events.
While horses are widely known for their use in these recreational activities, today we spotlight a greater service they provide. Members of the military and veterans often find peace and healing at the horse barn, using equine therapy.
We honor these men and women who have sacrificed so we can enjoy freedom. And we pay tribute to the horses who help these wounded warriors heal when they return home.
Warrior Wellness Program
In October 2011, America’s Horse ran a cover story on the Air Force Academy Equestrian Center, a 950-acre haven nestled in Pike’s Peak National Forest. The stable is one of the U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Units that provides medical care, rehabilitation and transitioning - either back to the Army or into civilian life.
The Colorado Springs facility operates to assist military personnel and their families. The center’s Warrior Wellness program uses horses to help soldiers heal from both mental and physical wounds resulting from their service. It serves as therapy and also offers vocational training for those desiring a new career.
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Billy Jack Barrett, who heads the center’s operations, was inspired to start the program after visiting with a lieutenant colonel commanding the Warrior Transition Unit in Fort Carson, Colorado. The lieutenant colonel and his staff joined Billy Jack to help check fences and enjoy time horseback riding.
“They just really had a wonderful time,” Billy Jack remembers. “They were laughing, they were joking. The lieutenant colonel explained later that with so much tension in the hospital and personality differences, that was an issue. But after they spent time out here horseback and relaxing, it was one of the best team-building exercises they’d ever done.”
The staff returned to the Air Force stables, and they brought with them soldiers who were also overwhelmed and exhausted. This led to the Warrior Wellness program’s launch.
Since its inception, Warrior Wellness has helped many individuals and families. Soldiers typically work 20- to 40-hour weeks, helping with feeding, watering, sweeping barn aisles and cleaning pens, interacting with staff, volunteers, cadets and the horses along the way.
The soldiers also have weekly equine-assisted therapy sessions where they work with the horses on the ground, as well as ride. While they work, they visit with the specialists, who have training in talking through issues.
“You know when you get on a horse, it helps make your head still and quiet and unlocks feelings,” says Jeanne Springer, an equine specialist. “It helps in unraveling the knot of fear and tension and memories that a lot of them have. They can start finding a peace.”
It can also lead to dramatic breakthroughs that result in healing.
“We had a medic who had no prior horse history,” Jeanne remembers. “One morning, he came out and had obviously had a bad night. We just try to ask open-ended questions and try to help them unlock the doors. He just unloaded. He started reliving the night, reliving the memories. Then as he was crying, this mare stepped forward and laid her forehead against him. You know how intuitive horses are, and they offer such a connection.”
This is just one example of many. Several of the center’s participants have experienced these kinds of breakthroughs as they work with horses.
“The PTSD can be a difficult thing for those of us listening,” Jeanne says. “We shed tears over what we ask these young men to face. It’s mind boggling, and it’s soul wrenching. But we just try to help them find a peace, and we’ve had more than one soldier come back and say, ‘You kept me alive. You may not have known it, but you just being here, being able to come out to the stables, kept me alive.’ Those stories, those smiles, those children, those wives that say, ‘You gave me my husband back. You gave our kids their father back.’ That’s a testament.”
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Jacob Legendre’s Story
Jacob Legendre went through the program after nearly two decades of serving his country. Jacob has undergone more than 32 surgeries to repair damage done to his body from an ambush in 2004, where he and his men were hit by a hellstorm of improvised explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and sniper fire. Struck in the head by an RPG, shot in the arm and blown out of his vehicle, he was still able to rally his men to win the skirmish. A cancer survivor, Jacob is deaf in one ear, has a spinal implant and endures chronic pain from severe lower-body damage.
And that is only the physical pain. Worse yet is the unrelenting mental burden that results in severe flashbacks, survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As an Army serviceman since he was 17, Jacob entered the Bravo Company Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson in 2011 to learn how to live outside of the military. He first worked as an instructor for soldiers in training and then as a liaison at a clinic, but as time passed, the walls were closing in on him.
“I just had enough. I’m not an indoors person,” Jacob says. “So I went back to occupational therapy and said I wanted a job outside. I don’t care what it is. I just need to be outside.”
Jacob ended up at the center’s equestrian stable, where he healed with the help of horses.
“That’s the thing about the horses,” Jacob notes. “Animals alone are something calming. But something about the horses, it’s just a magical bond. It calms everybody, no matter what’s going on.
“When I started in this program, I knew nothing about horses,” Jacob says. “I still don’t know very much, but I know a heck of a lot more than I did. … I guess there’s a cowboy in me somewhere. A lot of these guys (in the Warrior Transition Unit) don’t know much about horses.
“I tell them, ‘Look, just go out there and touch the horses. It’s magic.’”
Jacob, like countless others, has shown bravery while working to build a life despite the hardship that resulted from his service. And, as these veterans struggle to overcome debilitating physical and mental wounds, the horses of the U.S. Air Force Academy Equestrian Center provide a peace that eases pain.
As we celebrate this year, let us remember the price so many have paid for our freedom. And, if you are lucky enough to celebrate with your American Quarter Horse, cherish every moment. As Jacob said, just touching a horse – it’s magic.
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