Horses have had a long association with war.
Their use on the battlefield, which dates back thousands of years, gained international attention recently with the Steven Spielberg film, War Horse, based on the novel and play.
In the world of racing, it's not uncommon for Thoroughbreds to carry names reflecting this history – Man o' War, War Pass, War Front, Battle Hardened, Warrior's Reward – just to name a few. Racehorses are highly-trained, disciplined and focused on winning, just like human soldiers. And when their service is over, as with their human counterparts, they often face difficult circumstances and frighteningly uncertain futures. Some of them are lost forever.
Three years ago, Vietnam veteran Bob Nevins wondered what might happen if he brought Thoroughbreds and war veterans together. Nevins had been reading about a dramatic increase in the suicide rate among vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although only one percent of Americans has served in those wars, veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides. A recent study estimates that between 2005 and 2010, a service member took his or her own life once every 36 hours.
Nevins believed he had a solution, and the idea for Saratoga War Horse was born. Late last year, the program came to fruition, pairing ex-racehorses needing a second career with veterans who might be looking for a reason to live.
“What I'm creating here, I'm utilizing Thoroughbreds in a suicide prevention model to deal with the fallout of war,” said Nevins.
Saratoga War Horse is a three-day course that gives local veterans the opportunity to interact with Thoroughbreds in a trust-building exercise. The concept – based on the equine communication methods of Monty Roberts – is that by using a horse's own language, humans can form a bond with the animal. Nevins said with soldiers, who may have buried their emotions and shut down internally, the results have been remarkable.
“Here's a 1,200-pound horse that you don't know much about, but when that connection takes place, the horse has accepted the veteran as the herd leader,” said Nevins. “For them, it creates the idea that they can finally trust somebody. It just opens them up, and they start seeing life differently. They're not so guarded. They're letting people into their life.”
A video produced by Saratoga War Horse reveals the potential power of this connection. U.S. Army Sergeant Trevor English, who served in Afghanistan, is among those shown in the “round pen” learning the steps of communicating intentions with the horse. At one point, English turns his back to the Thoroughbred, Whiskey, and waits. The horse accepts the cue and walks over. English is visibly moved by the moment.
“Whiskey had opened inside me an emotion I had never felt before,” English said. “He told me, in that five minutes in the round pen, that even though we didn't trust each other in the beginning, that we were not only connected – we were united.”
“With tears in my eyes I realized that I wasn't petting a horse, I was talking with my friend,” English said. “We talked, completely non-verbally, about how much we trusted each other. I couldn't really explain how I felt, except that it was one of the greatest days of my life. It's empowering.”
Despite what it might look like, Nevins is quick to point out that this isn't equine therapy. And he's not running a charity either.
“We don't want to treat the veterans as a charity case,” Nevins said. “It's hard enough for them to come forward and get help. And I don't talk about it as therapy – psychologists bristle at that stuff. I'm turning these veterans into Robert Redford, the horse whisperer. How cool is that?”
The reason Nevins cares what psychologists think is that he wants the program to be much, much bigger than it is now. Nevins has attracted interest from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which is conducting a scientific study of Saratoga War Horse. Nevins wants to create a national model that others can follow and that is scientifically validated. He says VA researchers are impressed with the early results.
“The government isn't going to spend millions of dollars on feel-good or mom-and-pop,” Nevins said.
“I've gotta have my act together. Once we validate these things, psychologists will feel comfortable about it, and people won't look at them funny.”
“If we can create this in kind of a franchise mode, with approval of the government, we can have other people set these programs up. That means we're addressing a huge national problem, and we're helping the Thoroughbred industry by bringing hundreds of former racehorses into service.”
Nevins only uses Thoroughbreds for the program because there are so many of them readily available off the track, and because of the parallels between former soldiers and ex-racers. In its early stages, Saratoga War Horse has seven Thoroughbreds, mostly donated by owners and trainers who race at Saratoga. Nevins anticipates horses will spend about a year with Saratoga War Horse before heading off to yet another new career, hopefully a calmer, happier horse having participated in the program.
“We have people on staff trying to figure out what the horse's next job might be,” Nevins said. “Our typical horse might be a four- or five-year-old gelding. They don't have too many options. We have to look at them so that they have another job after they're done working with us.”
Nevins says his national model calls for 12 horses and four instructors at each facility. A dozen vets would be seen each week year-round.
Most of the funding for the “pilot” program has come from Nevins, a retired airline pilot. But he hopes government funding can take the project to a whole new level. First, there's tons of paperwork, safety and confidentiality standards that must be met, and scientific research. Nevins said his proposal was 246 pages.
“We've already had to jump through a lot of hoops,” said Nevins. “But it'll all be worth it if we can find homes for hundreds of horses and save hundreds of lives. We're thinking big here.”
Click here to visit the Saratoga War Horse website.
Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made to Thoroughbred Charities of America in honor of Saratoga War Horse. Three Chimneys will be donating $100 each and every week we bring you a story of people or organizations making a positive difference in our world.
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