From time to time, you hear about organizations that pair veterans with animals, usually in an effort to help transition them back to civilian life or cope with issues that arose from their service, or just to give them a pet that offers unconditional love. Most service animals are dogs, though there are a few programs that pair veterans with cats. One unique program in Kansas, however, is having amazing success helping veterans by pairing them with horses.
Patrick Benson and his friends Andy and Pat Brown conceived War Horses for Veterans in 2012. Benson, a combat veteran with an equestrian background, served in the Army from 1998 to 2004. He experienced firsthand the effectiveness of working with horses during his transition back to civilian life. The Browns own a pipeline supply company that has employed numerous veterans over the years. They also own a number of horses. Benson says he and the Browns developed an equestrian program for veterans “transitioning from combat to civilian life” over the course of two years.
“We wanted to establish a peaceful equine environment, as well as provide networking and mentoring opportunities to combat veterans,” Benson said. In 2014, War Horses for Veterans became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization.
The organization’s programs are open to all United States combat veterans, and participants have come from across the country. Benson says participation runs about 20 percent female to 80 percent male, and they are selective about who they choose to admit. A psychologist interviews all applicants by Skype or on Facetime. The screening is rigorous because not everyone is suited to be around horses. The screening is also thorough because War Horses for Veterans programs are expensive endeavors that are 100 percent free to participants.
Like other service animals, horses are especially helpful for veterans seeking to transition back to civilian life. | Photo: War Horses for Veterans
While in the program, all expenses, including flights, hotel, food and transportation are sponsored. A typical, activity-packed three-day experience would begin on a Friday, when veterans arrive in Kansas City. After a quick stop at the Doubletree Corporate Woods to unpack, they’re off to the farm to begin working with the horses. Dinner on Friday night is usually at Jack’s Stack, a local barbeque restaurant.
Saturday is an all-day experience with the horses, followed by dinner at Stroud’s, a famous fried chicken place. On Sunday, the group has an “after-action review,” and the veterans have their choice of more time with the horses, or fishing in a local lake. Then it’s off to the airport for the trip home.
Twenty combat veterans went through the War Horses for Veterans program last year, which runs April through October. The organization has some ambitious goals for the program, with a winter location being high on the priority list in 2017.
“We allow four new veterans and two mentors per program,” Benson explained. “Typically, we run one program per month. This year, we will have two or three months running two programs per month.”
Although War Horses for Veterans is a three-day program, Benson says the veterans “remain a part of the War Horse family and may return as mentors as often as they like.”
The program forces participants to build trust with the animal and focus on completing goals. | Photo: War Horses for Veterans
All of the horses in War Horses for Veterans are highly trained and constantly evaluated by Benson. Program participants are educated about horses when they enter the program. There are eight horses that work with the veterans, both Morgan horses and quarter horses. Benson says there is no particular breed that is better suited for the War Horses for Veterans program, and that he judges the horses on their dispositions and dependability.
Asked what makes these horses and combat veterans a fitting combination that helps the participants, Benson says, “When dealing with a thousand-pound animal, one has to develop a mindset and a trust.”
“War Horses for Veterans is located in a very peaceful environment” he explained. “Horses are nonjudgmental, and are conditioned response animals that sense emotions. The veterans learn quickly that trust works both ways; veterans can trust the horses and the horses can trust the veterans. Horses seem to soothe anxiety, allowing the veterans to be vulnerable, without causing stress.”
Benson is grateful that War Horses for Veterans has fostered so many positive experiences, and given veterans some great stories to tell. He says that nearly every program participant has actively pursued more time with horses.
Benson proudly recalls one veteran who, while sitting on his horse, patted the animal and told it, “Thank you! I haven’t been this happy in a long time.”
When asked how people can help War Horses for Veterans, Benson says donations are appreciated first and foremost. Then he also stresses that combat veterans need many more career opportunities than they are currently being afforded. He asks that all employers do more to provide jobs to veterans.
If you would like to learn more about War Horses for Veterans, go to: http://www.warhorsesforveterans.com/home.html
Cameron Gray is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter .