An immersive "re-boot" camp using rescued wild mustangs to help veterans transition from military to civilian life.

 

Sometimes we save animals.

Sometimes they save us.

War Horse Creek is a comprehensive retraining program using equestrian therapy to help veterans transition from the military to the civilian world. Our program will provide life skills training, education and career guidance with a focus on post-traumatic growth. It will reframe the military experience to be more beneficial in civilian life.

The immersive program is unlike any other. It will enable our clinicians to identify those at greatest risk - many of whom aren't aware they're experiencing symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic brain injury (TBI) - and to provide guidance as they reintegrate back into the world.

We meet the veteran on their terms, and offer them a way to process their military experiences among peers who understand them.

 

VETERANS IN CRISIS

It's no secret that many veterans struggle upon their return to civilian life. Despite billions in increased federal, state and private spending on veterans' mental health issues, suicide rates are on the rise - particularly among 18-29 year olds.

The Veterans Administration and Department of Defense generally provide traditional "talk therapies" and medication to help veterans deal with PTSD and TBI. However, many veterans are reluctant to engage in talk therapies, and pharmaceuticals have their limits, including risk of addiction.

What is needed is a way to get to the root causes of the problems, and avoid the alienation and downward spiral that so many veterans experience when they come home.

PLIGHT OF THE MUSTANG

Mustangs are under siege across the West. Currently about 45,000 wild horses have been rounded up from public lands and now languish in Bureau of Land Management pens. Recently, an advisory board to the BLM recommended all horses be sold off or destroyed. They rejected the recommendation, for now, but the clock is ticking.

Mustangs are ideal for equine therapy. They are, in effect, highly sensitive 1,200-pound biofeedback mechanisms. Horses sense and respond to a person's intentions, physicality and emotions, mirroring back subconscious issues so they may be identified and addressed.

Veterans cannot use force or intimidation with a wild horse. They must learn to remain calm, control their state, and earn the horse's trust.

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A SYMBOLIC BOND

Many mustangs descended from horses bred for the military, then turned out to the wilderness when they were no longer needed. Only the strongest survived, due to their strength, resourcefulness and hyper-vigilance – characteristics they share with our veterans.

These common traits can create a connection between veteran and horse, often leading to a marked transformation for each.

We want our program to change the public perception of wild mustangs from tragic burden to highly valuable resource.

And we believe it is fitting that descendants of the horses that carried our forefathers into battle will now help bring our warfighters home.

Younger veterans were hardest hit. The suicide rate for veterans age 18-29 was 86 per 100,000 (compared to 14 per 100,000 for civilians), much higher than previous estimates and almost twice as high as other age groups.
— Dr. David Shulkin, M.D., Under Secretary of Health, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. New York Times, July 7, 2016

Equine therapy has been proven to be effective - and in some cases, miraculous - as reported by veterans and therapists alike.

 

Many veterans are reluctant to engage in traditional "talk therapies" for a variety of reasons. It simply goes against the warfighter grain. Stepping into a ring with a wild horse is an entirely different experience, and a challenge well suited to for veterans.

Working with horses is a somatic experience, a form of alternative therapy aimed at relieving the symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-related health problems. Awareness of the trauma-related health problems and healing are experiential, not analytical. For most veterans, learning through an integrated physiological experience is second nature - they’ve been doing it in the military for years.

Both the DoD and the VA are experimenting with alternative therapies, including equine-assisted therapies, with encouraging results. EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) is equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) while PATH, Int'l (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International) is a federally registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused more on neuromuscular therapy and physical therapy.

PATH generally requires riding on well-trained horses, while EAGALA uses groundwork, requires no riding, and uses horses that need no special training beyond basic gentling. Initially, our program will focus on the EAGALA modality and will eventually offer PATH riding for veterans that have suffered both physical and emotional combat trauma.

 
A horse can be our greatest teacher, for horses have no egos, they never lie, they’re never wrong, and they manifest unparalleled compassion.
— Tim Hayes, author of “Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal”

The Sanctuary's land provides an ideal habitat for mustangs... and a naturally healing environment for veterans.

 

Founded in 1980, Living Free was among the first privately funded, no-kill animal sanctuaries with the mission to rescue cats and dogs from shelter euthanasia. If an animal is not adopted, they live out their lives with us with as much freedom, dignity and compassion we can provide.

We're located on 154 acres in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs, near Idyllwild. Much of the land is pristine wilderness bordered on three sides by national forests, offering a unique combination of resources to support War Horse Creek.

On the operations side, we are in Phase Two of a reorganization that began in mid-2014. All Phase One objectives have been met or exceeded. For example, one primary goal was to improve core mission efficacy, and cat and dog adoptions have increased 540% since reorganization began. We also started hosting a low-cost community spay/neuter clinic that now treats 600 animals per year.

We have an agile, proven management and business development team, and have working partnerships with other organizations to share resources and information. We have a professional advisory team to assist in all areas of operation - from innovative equine infrastructure design to comprehensive alternative therapeutic programs.

Our stakeholders will also have the opportunity to be on hand as rescued mustangs arrive and are turned out at the sanctuary, often after months or years in confinement. When not working with veterans, the horses will have the freedom to roam spacious 25 to 40-acre wooded turnouts and can be observed behaving much as they would in the wild.

The program will bring attention to the challenges facing wild horses on public lands across the West, and promote the value of mustangs beyond conventional equine uses, with the goal of increasing adoptions as therapeutic partner animals.

 
PTSD, depression, addiction and TBI can have long term, cascading consequences. The effects of post-combat mental health and cognitive conditions can be compared to ripples spreading outward in a pond.
However, whereas ripples diminish over time, the consequences… may grow more severe.
— RAND Corporation Whitepaper, 2007, “Invisible Wounds of War”
 

War Horse Creek is designed to get to the root causes of our veterans’ struggles and to help them resolve issues before the downward spiral of alienation, isolation, anxiety, addiction, depression and suicidal ideation begins.

Working with educators, doctors and mental health care professionals, we will use a variety of modalities to accomplish this, centered on equine-assisted psychotherapy, which is well suited to returning military personnel.

This pilot program will allow us to work from veteran input and test combinations of treatment modalities to determine the most effective program ongoing. Once proven, the model can be replicated across the country, saving more lives and reducing more suffering in the future.

Our goal is to inspire a sea change in the way we welcome our warriors home, and reduce the psychological cost of military service now and in the future.

 
But after the fires and the wrath, but after searching and pain,
His Mercy opens us a path, to live with ourselves again.
— Rudyard Kipling, author of “The Choice (The American Spirit Speaks)”