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Reflections November 2017

Saratoga WarHorse: Taking Action. Making Connections. Changing Lives.

By Marti Healy

Based on the silent, natural language and psychology of the horse, the power of healing is enabled with tremendous impact between veterans who are suffering from the unseen wounds of military service and veteran thoroughbred racehorses who are suffering from the same type of damage to their souls and hearts and minds.

Charlie (name changed to protect his privacy) couldn’t sit still for longer than a few seconds at a time. Something inside him wouldn’t allow even that much peace. That had been taken away from him in Afghanistan. His feet shifted constantly, anxiously, under the table in the small, private classroom setting where he was gathered with five other military veterans on the second day of a three-day program known as Saratoga WarHorse.

It was only later that day – after the personal encounters with the horses – that Charlie was finally able to speak openly about how angry and devastated he had been when he was told he could no longer be deployed back to Afghanistan – how lost he had felt with nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be. He talked about how his family and friends had pressed him repeatedly to tell them about his experiences in the Middle East. Until he told them. And then, he said, he remembers the looks in their eyes, and how they turned away from him and didn’t ask him about it again, and how it would never be the same between them, and how he knew there was no forgiveness.

And yet, as Charlie spoke about all of this at the completion of his Saratoga WarHorse experience, he sat in total calmness. His hands rested in his lap. His feet were steady. His voice sounded as if he were talking about someone else, someone he had once known in his past.

 

Making Connections

Just a short time earlier, Charlie had buried his face and wept against the warmth of a horse – and then into the shoulder of the man who had brought him to this place, and the arms of his buddies who shared this experience with him, and into his own crossed forearms pressed hard against his body. He had let the tears fall openly, and left the stains as testament on his face without shame.

They had all wept like that. They had all earned the right. And all of them had just experienced the heart of the Saratoga WarHorse program.

Bob Nevins, founder of Saratoga WarHorse, stresses the fact that it is the veterans themselves who are personally responsible for the life-impacting experience they take away from the unique, equine-centric program. The horses are the critical means. The people are the dedicated facilitators. But it is the veterans who somehow make the profound connections that break through their pain and memories, barriers and brokenness, to begin to heal and move forward.

 

Taking Action

Nevins, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran himself, first experienced and envisioned the process that would become known as Saratoga WarHorse; but it wasn’t until he aligned his observations and strategy with the considerable insight, knowledge and capabilities of equine specialist Melody Squier that the program began to take its current shape and form.

Based on the silent, natural language and psychology of the horse, the power of healing is enabled with tremendous impact between veterans who are suffering from the unseen wounds of military service and veteran thoroughbred racehorses who are suffering from the same type of damage to their souls and hearts and minds. The shared experiences between humans coming back from the world of war, and horses coming back from the world of racing, are striking. The potential internal wounds and scars are frighteningly similar. And the connections that are possible between these two populations are profoundly healing – for both humans and horses.

Currently, studies are underway to try to understand the science behind it all. It has been called chemical, biological, psychological and spiritual. And it is, perhaps, all of these things. But in the end, it is as undeniable as it may be indefinable, as effective as it may be elusive.

 

Changing Lives

Charlie is a real veteran. But he’s just one veteran from just one military experience. Because that’s how it’s done at Saratoga WarHorse – one veteran and one horse at a time.

There have been many hundreds of men and woman and horses who have gone through the program before and after Charlie – either in Saratoga Springs, New York, or in Aiken, South Carolina. Some of them are terribly young and some are achingly worn; there are those fresh from the battlefield and those who have been haunted for far too long.

Yet, regardless of the branch of service, regardless of the distance traveled to either location, the Saratoga WarHorse experience is completely without charge to the veterans; all costs are paid by donations from grateful Americans.

Charlie began his three-day Saratoga WarHorse experience not knowing what to expect, expecting nothing. But with one more surge of courage he reached out for a way to ease the alienation, the anger, the hopelessness of never being able to imagine any tomorrows. There, in that place and that time, in the round pen with a single horse and a silent life-impacting equine connection, what he found was absolute truth and honesty, trust and forgiveness: an exchange of peace for pain; a final letting go.

Before the end of the day, Charlie sat quietly, at ease, in hope. Charlie talked about his future.

 

For more information about Saratoga WarHorse, please contact: www.SaratogaWarHorse.org. 518.744.3600. If you are a veteran who is struggling, please do not hesitate to contact:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

*The photographs by Shelly Marshall Schmidt are of various participants.

Marti Healy lives in Aiken, South Carolina, and is author of the books "The God-Dog Connection," "The Rhythm of Selby," "The Secret Child," "Yes, Barbara, There is an Aiken," and "The Childornot Tales."

Meet Marti