Veterans, horses help one another heal with ranch program
Air Force veteran Darryl Hamilton doesn’t suffer from the psychological issues with which many veterans often deal, but his children and his co-workers nonetheless noticed positive changes after he spent time handling horses at the Liberty Equine Center in Spicewood.
“(My kids) saw a more relaxed person, not so wound up,” he said. “Once they noticed, I started to take notice as well.”
So he kept going. As he was feeding and grooming the horses — whatever he could do to take care of them — he found himself decompressing and releasing his anxiety as well.
That’s exactly the result equine center owner Scott White was aiming for when he got involved with the Veterans Equine Therapy Services (VETS) program, which pairs military veterans (many with post-traumatic stress disorder) with rehabilitating horses, earlier this year. While there are plenty of equine therapy programs available for veterans, this one also benefits the horses, which were once abused, neglected or abandoned and are slowly accepting human contact again.
“It’s therapy for the (vets) absolutely, without actually being like therapy,” White said. “They’re not sitting on anyone’s couch. They’re doing work. They come out here and we say, ‘We have a horse for you to help rehabilitate.’ It’s different than that sort of clinical approach of, ‘We’re going to help you,’ and they respond to that.”
The idea originated with Beth Rand, who runs the nonprofit Joyful Horse Project in Lakeway and Bastrop. She rescues horses from feedlots and other horrible situations, brings them out of their pain with the help of a holistic veterinarian and others and gets them comfortable with humans again. But then what?
Mike Beck, a musician and former cowboy who travels internationally touring with his guitar and spreading the horsemanship techniques he learned from cowboy legends Tom and Bill Dorrance, helped Rand find that answer after they were introduced through a friend when Rand needed help with a difficult horse. Among his teachings was one critical truth about horses: They need a job to do. And what better job than helping military veterans like Hamilton learn how to relax?
Beck, who’s donating all the proceeds from his new CD, “Tribute,” to the Joyful Horse Project and VETS, accepted Rand’s offer at the beginning of this year to come introduce rescue horses to combat veterans and quickly found success.
“I would show them simple stuff, you know. ‘Can you feel him? Can you lead him?’ We’re not going to go out and start riding,” Beck said. “It’s just to help them start feeling something. That’s when the horse takes over. The approach I’m trying to share … it’s not about dominating; it’s about building partnership, a relationship.”
Out of this original work, White — who had known Rand at previous stables, then started taking on horses at the ranch after they had moved through her care — developed VETS based on the wants and needs of the veterans who were involved.
Participants in VETS meet on Saturdays for a series of three six-week courses.
White told the story of one man who constantly fought with his son. The veteran was tense out in the pen with the horses, and they could read his mood and panicked. But White — who eventually grabbed his face and said “relax this” — was able to calm him down, a lesson that stayed with him later during an argument with his son and helped him to finally connect with the teenager.
The main goal of VETS is to encourage three things — trust, confidence and relationships — between the veterans who enroll and the seven horses at White’s ranch.
“It’s no accident we’ve chosen those three terms,” White said, “because, whether those people ever come around horses again, they can use those lessons in their own experiences.”
Mike Beck Concert & Dinner
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18
What: A wild game dinner from Broken Arrow Ranch and beer pairings from Rahr and Sons Brewery, followed by an acoustic performance by Mike Beck.
Where: The Farm at Travaasa Austin, 13500 FM 2769. A resort with its own equine program, Travaasa is hosting a benefit dinner and concert for Joyful Horse Project, with Beck singing pieces from his 11-track horse-themed “Tribute” album. Beck is also running a horsemanship clinic there Saturday and Sunday.
For more information:joyfulhorseproject.org