He was a 28-year-old veteran. He returned from war. He tried to return to the life he had before he left for the military. He signed up for college classes but the other students in his classroom had no idea the demons this young man had witnessed during war. He struggled to sleep at night. He struggled to reconnect with family and friends. He dropped out of college. He isolated himself. He was living as a ghost in his own life.
It takes just one phone call or email to save his life. In a final act of desperation the young veteran reached out to Saratoga WarHorse, an organization based in Saratoga Springs, NY with a satellite location in Aiken, SC, that assists veterans who are suffering from psychological wounds by providing an equine-assisted experience that initiates empowering changes. The young veteran was soon in contact with Saratoga WarHorse Founder Director of Program, Bob Nevins.
When I arrived at the Saratoga WarHorse office on Clinton Street in Saratoga Springs to meet with Bob, I waited a few minutes in the sitting area as Bob finished up a phone call. The office is adorned with numerous awards and photographs. There is a framed letter from a retired military officer. He wrote that after he completed the three-day program he returned home a changed man. He is a better man and a better husband. He wrote that for the first time in 9 years he felt human again. Next to the framed letter is a large map of the United States with a scattering of colorful thumb tacks from New York to Arizona. The tacks indicate the home states of all 800 graduates of the program.
I flipped through the Winter 2017 issue of Saratoga WarHorse’s newsletter, Connections. On the second page is a quote from a 2012 graduate: “When I exited the Army…I was lost. I had no purpose. I was crumbling. I found myself, one Sunday afternoon, upstairs in my bathroom (when my wife and three year old daughter were out) with a shot-gun. I had it up against my throat.” I closed the newsletter. I picked up a Saratoga WarHorse solicitation. This organization pays all expenses for its veteran participants including airfare and meals. It is no surprise they rely on the generosity of strangers that believe in its mission. Inside the solicitation is a staggering statistic: 20 military veterans from all walks of life commit suicide every day, as reported by the Office of Veterans Affairs. I hadn’t even spoken to Bob at length and already I knew that this organization is saving lives. To reiterate: 20 veterans die each day from self-inflicted wounds. Saratoga WarHorse is shrinking those numbers and doing so with the help of retired thoroughbred horses.
Bob is quick to say that he is not a mental health professional. He is a Vietnam veteran and was a longtime member of the New York National Guard. His personal experiences are why he understands the difficulties veterans face when they return home after war. He explained to me that the only way to understand the impact of the program is to witness it myself. First, he had to explain the program.
The 28-year-old veteran that reached out to Bob arrived at Albany International Airport a few weeks later. Bob was there to welcome him. He drove the young veteran to the Residence Inn at Marriot in Saratoga Springs, NY. Bob stresses that the experience is highly personal and therefore the three-day program is capped at 6 veterans. The first day includes a casual dinner with all the participants. Bob acknowledges that it is not hard to notice on that first day that most of the veterans are disconnected emotionally and are suffering from the impacts of trauma. The next day includes a trip to Cricket Hill Farm in Schuylerville, NY. According to Bob, the morning session includes a 2-hour lecture and video on the background of the program and how it is shaped to help the veterans. In the early afternoon the veterans have a session on how to communicate and guide the thoroughbred through the procedure. In the later afternoon the veterans have the opportunity to interact with the thoroughbreds. This is where Bob pressed play on the video for me to witness the emotional transformation of the 28-year-old veteran.
The young veteran is in the arena with Saratoga WarHorse Director of Equine Development and Lead Instructor, Melody Squier. He nods as Squier speaks to him. The video doesn’t have sound, which forces me to be conscious of facial expressions. He folds his lanky arms over his chest as if he is protecting himself from an invisible predator. The young veteran seems nervous when Squier eventually hands him the reigns to a large black thoroughbred. He leads the horse by the reigns into a round pen. Once the veteran feels comfortable he removes the lead line from the thoroughbred. This is when the thoroughbred begins to gracefully gallop in a circle on the outskirts of the pen. The veteran uses the lead to change the direction of the galloping thoroughbred several times. At the direction of the veteran the thoroughbred slows his gallop to a trot. The thoroughbred then stands in front of the veteran. As the procedure unfolds, the horse crosses the round pen and approaches the veteran signaling unconditional acceptance of the veteran as its new leader. The young veteran pats the thoroughbred’s nose. It is evident of the horse’s willingness to bond with the veteran. He then throws his lanky arms around the neck of the thoroughbred. Despite the video not having sound it is not hard to imagine the sounds of the young veteran’s sobs. It is as if I can see the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. “This is it,” Bob whispered to me. “This is the moment when the connection he has established with the thoroughbred transforms him. It has reset his emotions. He is able to connect his heart and brain again.” Bob explains it: the interaction between human and thoroughbred. Part of the experience is teaching veterans the language to communicate with the thoroughbred. According to Bob, talking about trauma doesn’t always help a veteran but is often required of them coming home from war while transitioning back to civilian life. Saratoga WarHorse provides an experience for the veteran that transcends language, and therefore breaks through emotional barriers in a very naturalistic way.
Bob stresses that the program resets the veteran and only then are they able to move on with their lives. The program’s graduates go on to get married, finish college and have children. Bob believes that the effectiveness of the program is traced back to the veterans themselves. “We are not getting letters and emails from graduates thanking us for a great weekend,” Bob said. “We get letters thanking us for changing their lives.”
In the newsletter that I had scanned before meeting Bob there was a veteran graduate from 2014 that is quoted as saying: “This program works. It changes lives…and it saved mine.” I wonder now if this might have been said by the 28-year-old veteran I witnessed on the silent video. If it wasn’t him I am certain it could have been said by any of the program’s 800 graduates that hail from across the nation, or the thousands of veterans that have yet to experience it. “People don’t understand the power of this program until they see it for themselves,” Bob said.
If you are or know of a veteran struggling please reach out to Bob at email@example.com.
For more information about Saratoga Warhorse visit the website: https://www.saratogawarhorse.com/
Photo is credited to Sharon Castro Photography, Saratoga Springs, NY.
Emily Marcason-Tolmie, a Saratoga native, is a writer, researcher, wife and mother. Emily and her husband, Ryan, are the parents to two wonderful little boys, ages 4 and 1.