Long Valley, NJ
Story and photos by Ruth Nortje, Founder and Director
PATH Intl. Riding Instructor
In 2015 while researching serving military veterans with disabilities through Equine Assisted Programs, we quickly discovered that we were not dealing as much with physical injuries of war as with combat stress, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and multiple blast exposure.
These invisible wounds with lasting effects are the signature injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 22 veterans complete suicide every day. Serving them would require entering the battle to save their lives. With their very unique needs, an organization exclusively serving veterans and their families would be most advantageous to succeed in such a mission. Together with three co-founding veterans, Paul Carro (US Army, Vietnam), Allen Gondeck (US Marine Corps, Iraq) and Deonne Boxer (US Army), the search was on for a farm where we could offer a safe haven and a healing environment exclusively for our region’s wounded warriors and their families.
Drakestown Equestrian Center in Long Valley, NJ, presented exactly such a place and Project Horses for Forces was founded in June 2017 and received its 501(c)(3) determination in November. The seclusion and serenity of the farm brings an immediate sense of peace to anyone who enters. Surrounded by forest, the 46-acre farm lends itself perfectly to our mission and purpose. The rustic New mission and purpose. The rustic New England barn, the Staff Sergeant Mike Moretti Stables, nestled between the trees and lush pastures, provides a safe space for our participants to spend time and develop partnerships with the horses and the supportive veteran volunteer team.
Equine Assisted Programs have been shown to be one of the most effective methods of healing available for these injuries and is actively promoted by the VA and Military Healthcare Facilities. Vietnam veterans are retiring from the workforce resulting in increasing suicide rates among their numbers due to resurfacing wounds of war. The ripple effects of combat trauma clearly impact the quality of life of the whole family.
Project Horses for Forces offers veterans, active service members, and their loved ones an environment which challenges and empowers them to make positive changes in their lives. Progressive horsemanship sessions help participants break the cycle of side effects from the invisible injuries resulting from combat trauma, multiple deployments, military sexual trauma or secondary trauma associated with military service. These side effects can include depression, anxiety, insomnia, loss of self-control, self-medication, substance abuse, job loss, family instability, homelessness, and eventually suicide.
An individual is dramatically influenced by their support system. Project Horses for Forces provides a safe, familiar and comfortable environment through military camaraderie which fosters trust, friendship, interpersonal skills, and a renewed sense of hope for the future. The support offered includes emotional and spiritual support as deeply rooted soul wounds are recognized. Apart from the instructors, all program volunteers are veterans. Veterans are far more likely to approach fellow veterans with their wounds and needs because they have the common experience.
Horses provide unconditional trust and acceptance, further enhancing connection. They model relationships that demonstrate acceptance, honesty, tolerance, patience, fairness, compassion and forgiveness. A horse is a great teacher for they have no ego. They mirror the emotion of the human, they never lie, and they manifest unconditional trust. Veterans suffering from invisible wounds find these qualities to be extremely effective in their healing process.
Imagine a veteran being able to reduce his medication 3 times in one year due to the programs. Imagine the mutual healing that takes place when a veteran helps an injured horse heal from its wounds. Sonny sustained a severe injury in his stall 2 years ago and his owner has been unable to ride him for that period of time. Andrew, (US Navy) started working with Sonny and just 4 weeks later, the owner is able to ride her horse again with complete confidence. Ion, an “impossible” off the track race horse, has found his peace and trust in humans since bonding with his warrior. We see the impossible happen when we simply let the horses and their Boots work it out together.
While the programs initially simply facilitate learning new skills and help veterans come out of isolation, over time they develop coping strategies and improved sense of wellbeing and sense of hope for the future. As participants find relaxation, they also find emotional healing which helps rebuild trust and relationships. This process requires much time. For this reason, we offer long-term involvement in programs with the goal of enabling veterans to fully and successfully return to civilian life and for families to restore, strengthen and consolidate their bonds.
The core program consists of sets of 12 weekly structured sessions, with an option for ongoing participation for as long as it takes. Each weekly session provides progressive horsemanship training and opportunities for optional farm activities. Participants learn everything there is to know about horses and the upkeep of horses and assist in their care as opportunities allow. They are trained in safe handling techniques, natural horsemanship and groundwork. True partnership develops with the horse they work with as the veterans learns how to be a leader to their horse. Round penning a free horse is a very intense experience and provokes strong emotions without exception. The highlight for each participant is the day their horse remains with them and voluntarily follows them around without any lead rope, only through non-verbal communication and trust. Once they reach this point, they are ready to saddle up and start riding. Already knowing their horse well when they first get on truly intensifies the enjoyment of being carried by this trusting partner. All sessions are facilitated by a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Riding Instructor with extensive training and experience with horses and military culture.
Group farm upkeep missions provide veterans the opportunity to spend time working together. These activities stimulate fitness, improved physical agility and strength. Many of these veterans actively seek and appreciate the opportunity to give back, feel ownership, pride and responsibility for the animals and barn. Physical disabilities are accommodated, and veterans are able to do as much as they can. All sessions are concluded with a relaxing picnic lunch.
Groups of veterans battling PTSD, couples, and veterans healing from military sexual trauma, come for half- to full-day clinics with their Mental Health Professionals. Kathy Hart, our Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Advanced Riding Instructor and PATH Intl. Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (ESMHL) works with the clinicians to help them process the emotions and metaphors that are drawn from the teamwork, body language, trust, confidence and other exercises done with the equine team. We have seen lives changed, as the power of experiencing a specific reality through the help of a horse has a profound effect on a person.
Finally, we provide Summer Horse Camp and riding lessons for the children of participants or active service personnel who are deployed with the Drakestown Equestrian Riding School. Imagine the joy for the parents to see their children thrive and enjoy an activity that is frequently out of reach.
While little more than a year old, Project Horses for Forces has already seen many positive impacts on the lives of veterans and family participants and we look forward to expanding and serving our MVP’s for many years to come.