The Power of Trust

Allison Goldberg

In my last article, I talked about equine-assisted therapy for people with physical and mental challenges and how horses helped people with these issues gain confidence and trust from their horses. This month I want to talk more about equine therapy and its effects on a very specific segment of our population – our veterans and first responders, the people to whom we owe so much for the safety and well-being of our country, our communities and ourselves.

 

Several months ago, Brave Horse was contacted by a gentleman with a farm in Taylorsville, Kentucky, Scot Heath, who was interested in CBD for three of his horses. After speaking with him to see what his horses’ needs were, I learned that Scott was running an equine mentoring program for veterans and that the CBD was for his therapy horses. We began to provide him with products to help support all six of his horses, both physically and mentally so that they could continue in turn to provide for the veterans, first responders and their families. Then, after writing the article on traditional equine-assisted therapy, I wanted to know more about what Scott was doing. He told me about his association with an organization started by Jeremy Harrell, called Veteran’s Club, Inc. Their mission is “to Provide Connection, Healing, Recovery and Housing for the Veteran Community.”

Started in 2017, VCI provides opportunities for veterans, first responders and their families to participate in equine activities to help them deal with the issues intrinsic to their situations – PTSD, depression, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), substance-abuse, and homelessness to name a few. Although they now have several programs for their members such as a tiny home village and an automotive mechanic vocational program, their first program was equine therapy.

 

"Horses make a difference in our lives. By learning how to gain their trust to allow us to lead them, we learn from horses that we must trust ourselves first and then trust them."

Harrell, a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraqi war dealing with his own post-traumatic stress, discovered the value of interacting with horses when he accompanied his wife to a farm in Kansas. Although he had never been around horses, his wife had grown up with horses and knew their value. He soon realized it as well. He recognized that to have a relationship with a horse, you must first gain their trust. He then realized that veterans suffering from PTSD, such as himself, and other issues from their service had much the same needs. He started VCI and established their first equine mentoring program.

Heath owns a small farm in Taylorsville, where he lives with his wife and their six horses, Oliver, Poco, Thunder, Cash, Silver and Ebony. Prior to becoming involved with VCI, Scott spent years as a student of the Parelli Foundation, learning natural horsemanship. He and his wife worked with their horses to build strong relationships through liberty work (off-lead groundwork). Heath approached VCI and offered his horses for their equine mentoring program. They soon became a team, with Heath managing the equine side of the program and providing the horsemanship training for veterans and Harrell the mental support.

Natural horsemanship is all about building trust with your horse and through that trust, becoming a leader. If a horse is going to follow you into places he would not normally go like a dark, scary box such as a trailer, or beside a busy road, he needs to first trust you and then accept you as his leader. Heath and Harrell both realized that this translated exceptionally well to veterans, who because of their issues have trouble trusting other people, or even themselves. Before they can build relationships with other people, they need to learn how to trust. Building that trust with a horse and learning to become a leader translates to their relationships with their families and communities. With the added piece of learning to have faith in God, which is built on trust, Harrell and Heath recognized they were on to something.

They both believed in a faith-based methodology, where faith is the first element and clinical therapy the second. They have found that this method works well for veterans and now also first responders and their families. Josh McElroy, also a veteran and a member of VCI’s Board of Directors, is currently working to standardize and replicate their Nationally recognized programming, as well as design an Equine Mentoring Facilitators Clinic for Veterans Club to train both veterans and volunteers. In addition to Harrell, Heath, and McElroy, VCI has licensed social workers and Marriage and Family Counselors on hand to work with both the veterans and their families.

 

Over the course of our interview, Scott and Jeremy told me a story that nearly brought me to tears, about a man called Doc, a naval veteran of Desert Storm, who had completely withdrawn into himself. He was so fearful and anxious that he kept himself physically apart from others, and rarely spoke to or even looked at anyone. He signed up for the equine program, but on the first day, he stood far away from everyone and did not speak. At some point during the orientation, Doc got Scot’s attention and waved him over. He was worried about several horses who had come into the run-in stall and four of them were crowded into one stall. He hesitantly asked if that was okay, meaning he was worried about so many horses in a small space. Scot’s recognized that just asking this question was tremendously hard for Doc, so he simply assured him it was okay and walked away. Later that same morning, as they were walking around outside, Doc began to follow Scot and ask more simple questions. Again, Scot just answered Doc’s questions without pressure for more. After that first session, Doc asked to come to the farm alone. To start, he would just sit in the barn and listen to the rain on the tin roof. Eventually Doc began to accept that he was safe in this space and began to open up around the horses and then around the other participants. Doc progressed so far and so well over time that he became a volunteer at the farm, helping with the horses and guiding new participants. He even became the spokesman for an interview with a TV news crew and filmed a segment where he told his story. The most poignant part of this story though, is that at a community event for veterans at a local restaurant, Doc’s three children ran up to Jeremy and hugged and thanked him for “giving them their dad back.”

Horses make a difference in our lives. By learning how to gain their trust to allow us to lead them, we learn from horses that we must trust ourselves first and then trust them. Simply being in their presence brings a peace and a trust that is a rare gift. At Brave Horse, we are privileged to support these horses so that they can continue their journey of helping veterans and first responders and their families live fully again.

For more information, please visit Veteran’s Club, Inc or go to Brave Horse and read my blog, “Between the Crossties with Allison”.

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