Anyone who has ever owned a beloved family pet understands just how deep the connection can be between animals and humans. But there’s something particularly special about the relationship between veterans and horses.
Many veterans who were deployed have dealt with traumatic situations that make them hyper-vigilant, explains Heidi Derning, who oversees Healing for Horses’ “ROCK on Veterans” program in Georgetown, Texas. Every year, the program works with over 100 veterans who are struggling to transition back into civilian life, offering horsemanship classes as a means of promoting independence and life skills.
“It’s unique to work with a horse because the horses themselves are hyper-vigilant,” explains Derning. In the same way veterans have been trained to be incredibly aware of their surroundings, so too are horses. “They really get each other because of that,” she says. And because horses are acutely aware of what is going on inside of a human, the veterans who work with them are able to benefit from what Derning calls biofeedback.
“Usually, the horse mirrors the anxiety of the person working with them,” she explains. “The veterans find that when they simply take a deep breath—when they walk away and come back, those sort of things will help settle down the horse.”
The trust part is key, she says. When a veteran starts trusting an animal to carry them around, their relationships start to improve at home. “Some of the skills they are learning—that it helps to be calm, to be more clear and direct in their communication—these same skills you use with a horse become naturally integrated into their skills at home.”
Which is important, explains Derning, because when one person has served, in many ways it is as if the entire family has served—which is the reasoning behind why ROCK not only serves veterans but offers horse partnerships for their spouses and family members, as well.
Riders come for two eight-week sessions that, thanks to funds from the Texas Quarter Horse Association, they are able to attend for free. “We couldn’t continue these programs for veterans without these funds,” Derning says. They are part of a much bigger picture of each individual veteran reintegrating back into their community. Nearly half of all veterans continue to stay involved after their free courses, working as volunteers, and becoming leaders. “A lot of them say that this is their one safe place away from their home that they feel safe,” Derning explains.
Jim Brennan, legislative director for the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, echos that sentiment. “The facilities and the people that do this,” he says, “these places become a safe sanctuary for veterans. They gravitate back there as volunteers because it’s a place they feel comfortable. It becomes more than just an equine therapy place for them—it becomes a lot more.”