Com­bat vet­er­ans and first re­spon­ders find hope and heal­ing through the War Horses for Vet­er­ans pro­gram.

EQUUS - - Conformati­on Insights - BY JU­LIA ARNOLD

Pa­trick Ben­son knows first­hand the phys­i­cal and emo­tional strain vet­er­ans can feel on a daily ba­sis. He served in the U.S. Army In­fantry from 1998 to 2004, spend­ing time in com­bat zones through­out the Mid­dle East.

After he re­tired, Ben­son, like many, strug­gled to make the tran­si­tion to civil­ian life, bat­tling with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTS') and

other in­vis­i­ble scars of ser­vice. The young vet­eran found light at the end of what could have been a very dark tun­nel by study­ing un­der -ohn Lyons and be­com­ing a horse trainer.

Horses, he be­lieves, saved his life.“They gave me a sense of com­pas­sion, for­give­ness and hu­mil­ity,´ Ben­son says. “I learned to be vul­ner­a­ble again.´

It oc­curred to Ben­son that if horses saved his life, maybe they could do the same for oth­ers. Mis­sion Ac­com­plished 'eter­mined to help other vet­er­ans find heal­ing through horses as he had, Ben­son— along with friends Pa­tri­cia and Andy Brown—founded the Kansas City-based non­profit War Horses for Vet­er­ans in 2014. Their vi­sion was to pro­vide a safe and peace­ful place where com­bat vet­er­ans could come to­gether for a long week­end to work with horses, con­nect with men­tors and break down the tough, self-pro­tec­tive walls built dur­ing ser­vice. Lodg­ing, trans­porta­tion and meals are com­pletely free to par­tic­i­pants, who may re­turn as of­ten as they like as a men­tor, so long as they bring an­other vet­eran with them. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has served more than 200 vet­er­ans and now also ac­cepts first re­spon­ders.

Vet­eran 'oug Heb­bard par­tic­i­pated in the War Horses

pro­gram for the first time in -uly 2018, and the ex­pe­ri­ence was so re­ward­ing that he came back as a men­tor with a fel­low vet­eran last fall. Like Ben­son, he cred­its horses with sav­ing his life.

After leav­ing the Army, Heb­bard suf­fered deep de­pres­sion. This re­ac­tion is not un­usual, says Ben­son, who ex­plains that re­turn­ing to civil­ian life can be a shock. “You are lost. It feels chaotic. Your new pur­pose might not be as mean­ing­ful,´ he says.

Along with phys­i­cal in­juries, vet­er­ans of­ten grap­ple with feel­ings of guilt, lone­li­ness and anx­i­ety. Heb­bard strug­gled with them all. But through rid­ing lessons, equine-as­sisted life coach­ing and bond­ing with a horse named 'ualcheck, Heb­bard says he’s learned to calm his in­ner self and has re­gained the con­fi­dence nec­es­sary to live a happy, lov­ing life. “Best of all,´ he says, “I’m now able to be the hus­band my wife de­serves.´ Heb­bard rides as of­ten as he can, con­tin­u­ing to find hap­pi­ness, ac­cep­tance and pur­pose with horses.

“The Horse Never Rejects Us for Who We Are”

Equine-as­sisted Life Coach Kel­ley Sla­gle serves as an op­ti­mistic and com­pas­sion­ate force on the War Horses staff and has wit­nessed the power of her equine co-work­ers time and time again. She be­lieves that work­ing with horses is ef­fec­tive in help­ing peo­ple deal with trauma be­cause it ful­fills “the deep need we are seek­ing of shared ex­pe­ri­ence and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. [Work­ing with horses] will for­ever shift the feel­ings you have about your­self be­cause you will now have a con­crete ex­am­ple of a time you showed up as your­self and were seen and ac­cepted. The horse sees all of us and never rejects us for who we are.´

Sla­gle ex­plains that through horses, peo­ple start to re­al­ize that the harm­ful mes­sages they be­lieve about them­selves—that they’re bro­ken, dam­aged, bad—aren’t true. She says, “A horse never rejects an hon­est hu­man. It blows the cover off our be­lief that if we share our darker thoughts, ev­ery­one will leave.´

Sla­gle and the en­tire War Horses staff see their equine part­ners as re­minders that au­then­tic con­nec­tions are pos­si­ble. “The con­nec­tion of that horse, that is ev­ery­where. Peo­ple who love you and care about you are hold­ing that con­nec­tion,´ Sla­gle says.

jen and women come to War Horses with var­i­ous de­grees of dark­ness cloud­ing their hearts. But by the time they leave the pro­gram, they have be­gun the jour­ney to­ward re­dis­cov­er­ing light­ness, hope and joy. They leave with more room in their hearts for the beauty the world has to of­fer and with the self­ac­cep­tance and for­give­ness that only comes from con­fronting demons—with a horse by their side.

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