Transformation and redemption are common themes in films and books about humans and horses. For the homeless Veterans utilizing the Health Care for Homeless Veterans services provided by VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System (Reno), there’s truth to the deep bonds humans and horses can form through interaction – the language of touch.
Our relationship with horses is different than our relationships with cats and dogs. Horses are both wild and tame. They don’t fit easily into the category of pet. This typically has to do with their large size, requiring special enclosures and large amounts of a specific diet.
Their size can also add an element of danger, which is why it takes a steady hand and the gentle touch of a well-trained equestrian to work with these emotional beings.
The relationships we form with our Veterans experiencing homelessness is delicately threaded together over time. It hangs in a fragile balance. Through loss of trust, depression, physical and/or mental health diagnosis, substance abuse and more, kindness is an emotion most aren’t used to witnessing, or even willing to accept.
For some, finding someone who is willing to whole-heartedly listen to them feels impossible.
Helping Veterans connect and trust
Victory Ranch Inc. is a Veteran-run nonprofit organization that uses horses to connect to people. In 2020, Reno VA Director Lisa Howard agreed to a partnership with Doug Hutton, the founder of Victory Ranch Inc., to encourage human growth and development through a communicative connection with horses via direct Veteran-and-horse interaction.
“Animals have an amazing ability to connect, [to] calm and [to] establish trust with people. Horses have bonded with mankind for centuries. Equine therapy is well-established,” Howard said. “I am thankful for our new partner, Victory Ranch, to add equine therapy for the men and women who have served the military.”
A Veteran and a horse, showing simultaneous curiosity.
On January 8, two Veterans had their first interaction with the horses. Neither Veteran had handled horses before and one admittedly had only seen them on television. Doug Hutton joined them in a small building to discuss safety tips and expectations. Then they went out to the barn.
What happened next was wonderful. It was the closest thing to a free heart transplant I will ever receive.
Veterans’ anxiety slowly melts
The horses approached the apprehensive Veterans. The Veterans were cautious, but each reached out a hand and were met with the warm nudge of an appreciative equine. You could see the anxiety slowly melt from the shoulders of two of our nation’s heroes. There was a sense of intimacy in this simple, yet embodied interaction.
When it comes to creativity, analysis and self-reflection, people tend to give a lot of weight to words and thoughts. Yet in this moment, these horses and Veterans had a connection without conversation.
At one point, one of the Veterans even turned his head sideways to view the horse through the corral rails. The horse mimicked him almost perfectly, producing a good belly laugh from all who were there.
Stable staff brought a pony named Trigger out of its pen and trained two Veterans on grooming (photo above). That seemed as much of a delight to them as it did to the shaggy looking miniature horse. Trigger started to prance around and smile with every brush stroke.
After only five minutes of grooming, each Veteran took turns sharing their lives with this animal who seemed so intent on listening, even long after the bits of carrots disappeared. You could tell this wasn’t Trigger’s first rodeo.
An emotional connection
During their short visit to the ranch, it was evident that these Veterans learned something about themselves.
And I learned why these relationships are powerful enough to create strong characters in film. Through a symbiotic and dynamic process of communication that’s reliant on touch, humans and horses establish an emotional connection at Victory Ranch.
That type of healing is what Reno VA believes and shares through its whole health initiatives. Mind and body, these men, and possibly the horses as well, are better for their new friendship.
Shane Whitecloud is a public affairs officer for the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System and a Navy Veteran.