Horses for Heroes

A Program Specifically Designed For Veterans

by Mary Dillinger, Public Affairs Officer, NAVAHCS

Northern Arizona VA Health Care System (NAVAHCS) joins with equine therapy programs to create a safe environment for individuals to work with horses, build relationships and bond.

Heroes and Horses is a nonprofit organization working with rescue horses and other equine animals. It challenges participants to explore how they are helping the horse as much as they are helped. The program assists Veterans with life skills, trust, communication, grief and loss, as well as moving through and moving on.

NAVAHCS has been working with Heroes and Horses since 2017, and nearly 100 Veterans have been enriched by this opportunity. The power of equine programs is particularly unique in enhancing mental health. The ranch brings the Veterans out of the typical therapy environment and into a more natural setting, which makes a big difference in how they respond. Some people work in individual sessions while others feel more comfortable in the group setting with other Veterans.

Horses as Healers

You may ask “why horses?” Believe it or not, horses are very helpful partners for learning, healing and connecting with others. Horses become silent therapists that model trust and safety. Veterans and first responders who have worked with horses in this program have gained assurance, self-awareness and self-acceptance. Horses assist with learning to communicate, reducing anxiety, decreasing isolation and gaining social skills.

Equine therapy programs are evidence-based treatment plans. Data collected from clients at Heroes and Horses shows a 49 percent decrease in depression and anxiety after the completion of the program.

One Veteran wrote: “I found your Heroes and Horses Equine Therapy, and it was a true blessing that lifted up my spirit in an indescribable way.”

This is just one avenue through which NAVAHCS connects with the community in support of the evidence-based therapy for healing. Currently, Veterans from the domiciliary participate in this course through recreation therapy. NAVAHCS hopes to develop and grow equine therapy for Veterans and staff at the facility.

The Veteran-Horse Connection

During the six-week program, NAVAHCS Veterans work with the horses, gain confidence and trust in each other and work toward goals. Each of the horses at the ranch has its own back story of neglect, abuse, abandonment and loss. The therapy is equally helpful for the Veteran and the horse. Both need to learn to depend on each other and find their purpose. It is a collaboration and healing process they experience together.

Usually at the beginning of the program, the Veteran and the horse choose each other. Sometimes it is because they have similar personalities and a connection. Other times it is just an instant bond. One Veteran said he felt as though they “got each other.”

Because the horses at the ranch have been through their own struggles, it usually means they have trouble adjusting to their new environment. They are antisocial and feel rejected by the herd. Many of the Veterans in the group said they felt exact the same way after returning home from combat.

Reaping the Benefits

Big, one of the horses, had a rough life. Brad, an Army Veteran hit it off right away with him. They both suffer from PTSD and trust issues. Brad said, “Horses don’t judge you, so you feel safe around them.”

Anne, an Air Force Veteran, said she was skeptical of the program but then she met Coors. This horse used to pull a tourist cart around the City of Prescott with his sister but became depressed and lost his will to live after losing her. Anne was instantly drawn to Coors. After just three weeks of working with him, Anne said she felt better about herself and her purpose in life. In turn, Coors got his drive back and was soon leading the herd.

Andrea Walker and Ann Balowski are the two amazing instructors at Heroes and Horses. They said they are so happy to be a part of a program working with Veterans and first responders. There is a covered area at the ranch where guests can share their experiences, eat lunch or just relax. The patio was built by Disabled American Veterans (DAV) with donated materials they provided, including picnic tables. Andrea and Ann said they are grateful for the support and donations from the community to help make this happen for Veterans.

“We learn something new each week,” Andrea said. “It is beneficial for us as well as for the guests.”

NAVAHCS is excited to have the chance to work with the community and develop partnerships while improving the lives of the Veterans we serve.

If you are interested in learning more about this wonderful program or other opportunities at Veterans Affairs, please call 928-717-7587 or visit prescott.va.gov or www.heroes.horse.