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heroes and horses

Helping Wounded Veterans Ride into the Sunrise

Suzanne Rhodes | 06/27/16

by Stephanie Singer, Intern, Virginia Wesleyan College

on a trail ride

In the United States, there are 60,000 organizations that exist to help veterans. Seven billion dollars are spent annually on their behalf. Despite these efforts, 100,000 veterans have committed suicide since September 11, 2001, averaging 22 lives tragically lost every day.

Enter another organization, one with an innovative approach to healing. It’s called Heroes and Horses, a Montana-based nonprofit that aims to help veterans struggling with unseen wounds like PTSD and TBI, return to a purpose-driven life. Angel Airlines for Veterans has come alongside to provide free flights for those veterans who need travel assistance.

Anna Carroll is the administrative director and director of strategy.  She explains that Heroes and Horses was created because of a void in veterans’ organizations; namely, a lack of alternative therapies for those returning from combat. Heroes and Horses provides that alternative.

A Different Approach

The nonprofit employs a radically different method of addressing veterans. Most treatment plans focus on medication, psychotherapy, or a veteran-as-a-victim outlook.

Heroes and Horses takes an approach that includes none of these. Instead, it involves a long-term wilderness experience on horseback. “Veterans are not victims,” Anna said. “They’re very capable.”

According to founder and executive director Micah Fink, who is also a former Navy Seal and Bronze Star recipient, the healing process starts with the horse. “When you go to war, your trust in humanity disappears. You see what people are capable of. So I don’t tell participants, ‘trust me.’ I put them on a horse, where it can happen naturally . . . War almost crippled me. I know that traumatic experiences can consume your life if you let them. But you have to struggle in order to overcome. If you kill fear, pain, love, joy, and hope then you kill the human along with it.”

Three Phases

Heroes and Horses incorporates three phases. Between each, the veterans go back to their homes for a short period of time.

The first phase is Stress Inoculation. Here, the veterans learn basic horsemanship, how to set up and break camp, and how to use mountain survival skills. Because so many things are going on at once, the veterans don’t have time or enough mental energy to focus on their usual causes of stress.

“It’s like a vaccine,” Anna said. Just as a vaccine is a non-virulent version of a disease to protect against infection, this phase contains non-threatening stressors to prepare the veterans for the anxieties they will face in their day-to-day lives.

The second phase is Application. Skills that the veterans learn in the first phase are applied on an eight-day pack trip. For this trip, the men ride out into the wilderness, assisted by mules carrying their gear. At night, they set up camp. This phase allows them to connect more with the wilderness and the horse.

“Studies have been conducted on this,” Anna said. “They show that when people are in the wilderness, they’re connected to something bigger than themselves.”

The third phase is Reintegration. The veterans become outfitters for three to four weeks. Outfitters first work for the staff. Then they take on leadership roles and increase responsibilities in the pack trips.

“When they get back, veterans often incorporate horses into their daily lives,” Anna said. This could include working in a stable or continuing to ride.

About the Horses

Horses are spirited creatures, but they are also willing. They require firm yet gentle leadership to function alongside humans. Once the rider establishes that he or she is a fair leader, the horse helps form a bond that is almost impossible to break.

The horse and rider must trust each other. Anna says that this trust is essential for veterans. Once they can trust a horse, it becomes much easier to trust other people. “Horses help to shift perspective, and once you shift perspective, you can shift a reality.”

Heroes and Horses chooses a variety of horses for their operations. At this point, they have quarter horses, Tennessee Walkers, and draft crosses. They even have three rescued mustangs.

These horses are physically fit, remain calm under pressure, and display intelligence. Quarter horses are known for strength, smarts, and stamina. Tennessee Walkers have a unique way of moving that makes for an extremely smooth ride. Draft crosses are as calm as a Clydesdale, but are a more reasonable size for riding. Mustangs have evolved to cross difficult terrain and possess a good survival instinct.

Anna selects horses by skill, not by appearance or even by breed. “It doesn’t matter what they look like or what color they are, so long as they’re good at what they do.”

Partnership with Angel Airlines for Veterans

Before Angel Airlines for Veterans got on board, Heroes and Horses was purchasing airline tickets to bring the veterans to Montana. This they did using money from their budget. They wanted to expand their operation without expanding their budget for expensive transportation costs. They submitted a request to be part of Angel Airlines for Veterans’ miles program. For 2016, Angel Airlines for Veterans will have helped 26 veterans fly to Montana for the program. 

New Beginnings

There’s a fitting quote on their website, HeroesandHorses.com: “We are not defined by our many scars, but rather by what we do when the wound closes.” Many of veterans’ scars come from the trauma of war. Heroes and Horses helps them overcome the related struggles rather than hide or suppress them. 

The protagonist of a Western always rides off into the sunset. This ends his story. In the case of Heroes and Horses, veterans can bravely ride off into the sunrise, allowing them to start a new and hopeful story.

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