Horseback Riding for the Soul
This Warrior Wellness program and its American Quarter Horses serve those who served their country.
January 6, 2013
From America's Horse
Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Legendre has sacrificed much for his country. The 18-year veteran of the military has been in 52 countries and seen nearly a dozen military tours from Iraq to Bosnia to Korea to places he can’t name. When Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed his hometown of New Orleans in 2005, he unhesitatingly dove into the heart of the devastation, leading rescue missions and saving countless lives in the natural disaster that killed seven of his family members and continues to affect the region.
“Imagine yourself walking into your job, drinking coffee or whatever, thinking ‘OK, this is what I have to do today,’ ” Jacobs says. “But when I walked in, it was instantly hell. Something was going down - for 16 hours every single day.”
And a lifetime of heroism comes at a heavy price.
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 - the deaths of men he commanded; the loss of his friends, including his best friend, who died in combat; the loss of his hometown, his family and his marriage. They result in severe flashbacks, survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder, leaving him struggling to cope while learning a whole new life.
“I am having a midlife crisis at the age of 35,” he says. “I’m divorcing my wife, and I’m divorcing the Army. I joined when I was 17, so I don’t know how to be an adult or a human outside of the military yet.”
With the same unhesitating courage he showed in battle, Jacob entered the Bravo Company Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson in Colorado two years ago to begin to learn that new skill. The U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Units provide complex care for wounded soldiers. The program provides medical care, rehabilitation and transitioning - either back to the Army or into civilian life. While soldiers are in the program, their medical care is the priority, but they are also required to either hold a job or return to school.
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Jacob 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.”
He ended up in the office of Billy Jack Barrett, the manager for the U.S. Air Force Academy Equestrian Center, looking to enter the Center’s Warrior Wellness program. Billy Jack has for the past 31 years managed the AFA Equestrian Center, which sits on 950 acres on the Academy grounds in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about 20 miles north of Fort Carson.
The Academy trains more than 4,000 cadets per year, offering four-year degrees to ready them for careers in the Air Force. The Equestrian Center is an entirely self-funded operation and operates to assist military personnel and their families. It does not receive any taxpayer money, running off income from boarding and rental riding.
Of more than 137 boarded horses at the facility and the 30 owned by the Academy, most are American Quarter Horses. The horses who have been or are housed at the Academy include racehorse Rio Del Norte, a gelding by Special Effort out of top broodmare Jaimie Jay, who earned $73,336 and finished fourth in the 1993 Rainbow Futurity. As an Academy horse, he was used by security forces for crowd control, boundary checks and at-home football games. One of the newest donations is Luv Me Like A Rock, a son of Rocked And Steady, who is currently being used by the Cadet Equestrian Team.
The Equestrian Center provides a range of services for soldiers and their families that rack up thousands of hours of participation each year.
Billy Jack, along with his two part-time employees, Robert Templin and Jeanne Springer, launched the Warrior Wellness program in 2009. Jeanne is familiar with the lives and travails of military families - her husband is a 20-year veteran. For two decades, Robert was an instructional technology coordinator for a school district and, upon his retirement, chose to work at the Equestrian Center.
Billy Jack was inspired to start the program after visiting with a lieutenant colonel commanding the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson. After heading out for a ride with Billy Jack, the lieutenant colonel mentioned that his staff needed to ride more than anyone. Billy Jack welcomed them - all 17 of them - to head out on the trails. They had no budget for trail rides, so Billy jack invited them to help check fence on the hundreds of miles of trail, to relax and to enjoy their time horseback.
“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, leading to the Warrior Wellness program’s launch. It then became a job choice for those in Fort Carson’s warrior transition unit.
Warrior Wellness has helped many soldiers and their families since its inception. Soldiers typically work 20- to 40-hour weeks and participate as long as needed. They help with feeding, watering, sweeping barn aisles and cleaning pens, interacting with staff, volunteers, cadets and the horses along the way.
“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.”
The soldiers also have weekly equine-assisted therapy sessions where they work one-on-one with the horses on the ground, as well as ride. While they work, they visit with the specialists, who have also had training in talking through issues.
“It’s just being there and being reassuring and working toward unlocking and helping them find peace in whatever way they can find peace,” Jeanne says of her job as a specialist. “We don’t have answers. We feel like our goal is to just walk alongside them. To be a resource they can call 24-7 - because suicide is a real issue. We fall in love with these guys; we do. We want to be there to help them, and I think we communicate that. So they feel cared
The physical aspect of working with a horse is extremely calming, which most horse people can attest to.
“You know when you get on a horse, it helps make your head still and quiet and unlocks feelings,” Jeanne says. “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.
“He wasn’t a horse person, but he could share the fact that this big body was something he could hug and touch. A lot of times, PTSD comes with attachment disorders, making them a little fearful of people and close contact. With these big animals, they don’t feel like they can hurt them. There’s that soothing comfort level of touching that horse.”
It is not only the soldiers who can use the therapy that horses provide. Their families, too, struggle to deal with their new reality.
“The spouse who went away (to war) maybe isn’t the same one who comes back,” Jeanne says. “The daddy who comes home might not want to snuggle anymore, or he jumps at loud noises, or he has to hide in the closet during the Fourth of July.
"That’s part of our goal, to reconnect the families. We can maybe help the kids have a little more understanding, but also to give the family time together, whether it’s recreationally or in therapy, to reconnect.”
Jacob says he enjoys bringing his 10-year-old son, Ashton, out to the stables. They do chores together, then have time to ride.
“My boy is the most important thing in my life,” Jacob says. “If I have nine lives, I’ve probably beat death seven times. I’m not sure why I’m still alive … but I got a reason to live, and I think it has to do with my son.
“He’s doing really good with what is going on, and that’s making me do better,” he adds.
Jacob is teaching Ashton the importance of work before play - you have to do chores before you can ride - but notes with a smile that his son is a natural on horseback.
“It’s just cool to watch,” he says with pride. “He’s a natural, and he just enjoys it.”
Another aspect at the Equestrian Center is vocational training. Currently, the Equestrian Center, in conjunction with Pikes Peak Community College, offers an on-site farrier school. Soldiers looking for a new career path can attend the class and become certified farriers.
Organizers hope to add additional careers, such as veterinary technician and racehorse groom, as the program expands.
While the soldier
must sign up to participate in the Warrior Wellness program, there is no charge to the soldier or to his or her family.
“That’s a goal for us,” Robert says. “These soldiers are heroes to us, every one of them. They all had a different walk getting there, but they all put on the uniform and stood up when others were stepping back. We appreciate that. We get a lot of pressure to show a profit, but our heart is not there. Our heart is right here, with these guys.”
Program organizers hope to expand the program so it can reach more soldiers. Colorado winters can be brutal, subsequently slowing down the education and therapy efforts in those months.
The Equestrian Center staff hopes to raise funds to build an indoor arena, which would allow year-round horseback riding. It would also include classrooms, allowing the expansion of vocational offerings.
Staff members also want to bring aboard licensed therapists to help expand the offering to soldiers as they work with the horses.
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“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.”
The Equestrian Center staff is developing a handbook on implementing the program at other military installations, which would allow these programs to develop around the country.
“When I started in this program, I knew nothing about horses,” Jacob says. “I knew about alligators. If you’ve ever seen (the TV show) ‘Swamp People,’ that’s me.
“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.’”
To donate to the Air Force Academy’s Equestrian Center, contact Billy Jack Barrett at (719) 238-3818.