While service dogs can work miracles for soldiers with PTSD, pooches haven’t cornered the market on animals helping America’s veterans.
Sante Fe, New Mexico’s Horses for Heroes program brings equine healing to veterans making the difficult transition from the war zone to civilian life.
The organization’s Cowboy Up! Program provides hands-on horse experience for vets suffering from physical injury or PTSD, starting from groundwork and progressing to riding and other rituals of ranch life. In addition to the camaraderie these ex-soldiers experience with horses, many of the cowboys who work with the vets are former soldiers themselves.
Horses for Heroes President Rick Iannucci is a former combat veteran and lifelong horseman. “We see guys and gals find a great sense of inner peace…as they start listening to the breath of the horse, and as they start grooming and being around the horses,” Iannucci explains. “Something magic starts to happen with that connection. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s palpable. You can feel it.”
When Samantha Cheetham, a trainer at Cheetham Performance Horses in Great Falls, New Mexico, heard about Horses for Heroes, she organized a riding and performance benefit for the nonprofit. It raised funds to build a lodge for housing soldiers to stay in during their training.
Cheetham, whose boyfriend is in the Air Force, knows firsthand about the physical and psychic healing power of horses. “They always say horses can see into your soul,” Cheetham told KFBB News. “I believe that.”
Former Marine Sterling Buckles cheated death when an Iraqi sniper’s bullet grazed his brain, Buckles returned home and was diagnosed with “100% PTSD.”
“Heroes for Horses has been a real blessing in my life,” Buckles said. “If I come [to the ranch] feeling anxious...the horse calms me down. Caring about something other than myself gives me a sense of accomplishment.” Riding the range, herding cattle and caring for horses is both exhausting and exhilirating. “At the end of the day, you’re tired,” Buckles explains. “But it’s a good tired.”