“There are 22 veteran suicides reported every single day, and probably many others that are not reported” says Bob Nevins, founder of the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation in New York.
Nevins, who was a Medivac pilot in Vietnam and was wounded in action in 1971, knew first-hand what it was like to return to civilian life after being in the service. As he watched the suicide rate continue to climb, he knew something had to be done in addition to the traditional therapies being offered to veterans. He began researching natural horsemanship techniques and although he was not a horseman, Nevins quickly realized the potential for a deep connection between horses and humans—he knew a strong connection to anything is often what veterans are missing when they return from the service.
“I decided to try these techniques for myself,” Nevins says, “but I was not prepared for the emotional breakthrough I felt when that horse connected with me.”
After realizing the profound effect connecting with a horse had on him, Nevins partnered with Melody Squier, a renowned natural horsemanship trainer and advocate, and began to lay the groundwork for the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation.
Saratoga WarHorse provides at-risk veterans a purpose-designed, three-day program completely free of charge, including lodging, travel fare, and meals. Since it began in November 2011, close to 700 at-risk veterans have successfully completed the program.
The program uses off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) acquired from private individuals or equine rescues because of the parallels their lives have with veterans.
“One day a Thoroughbred might be on track for the Kentucky Derby, and the next day they get injured and are thrown into civilian life that is so drastically different from what they knew on the track. The veterans who come to us are all too familiar with that scenario,” says Nevins.
By using OTTBs, Saratoga WarHorse not only helps veterans, but also horses in need. More than 50 horses have gone through the program since its inception and have been able to move on for adoption, a second career, or retirement.
“We do not do equine therapy, but we do provide a powerful equine experience,” Nevins says. “We actually make it a point not to talk about what we saw or did during our time in the service. Veterans don’t need to explain or justify themselves to me to be eligible for the program. I can hear it in their voice. All we do is give veterans the opportunity to go through a very proven and specific procedure to form a powerful, emotional connection with the horse.”
Nevins explains that when veterans go through a traumatic experience—whether it was due to war or military sexual trauma—it is like an emotional circuit breaker pops. He says the breaker pops at the time to protect them from the overload of what they are experiencing. When this happens, the breaker takes offline the emotional connections most people take for granted.
“Many veterans come to us as a last resort and it is not until they feel that profoundly intense connection with a horse, who holds no judgment or previous knowledge of them, that the breaker is reset,” he says. “It is the experience itself that triggers the profound change in the veteran and not anything we do personally.”
Bob cautions that claiming to be able to help veterans is a life or death matter and not one that should be made lightly.
“There are many well-meaning people out there who want to help veterans, but if you don’t know the types of thoughts that go through these veterans’ heads, you don’t understand that this is a life or death line they are walking and not something you can just dabble in without truly knowing what you are doing,” he says.
Of the more than 700 Saratoga WarHorse graduates, Bob is not aware of any who have attempted or committed suicide after completing the program—a true testament to Bob’s understanding of veterans’ needs. Another confirmation of the program’s success is that almost all of its growth has been organic via word-of-mouth among the veteran community.
“Some veterans are skeptical at first and they ask me, ‘How are you going to help me achieve something in three days that decades of therapy has not been able to fix?’ My response is to ask them how long the traumatic event that caused all of their problems lasted. Most of the time, their response is that the event lasted minutes or even seconds. A powerful experience—good or bad—can be life-changing in an instant,” he says.
Although Bob and the dedicated Saratoga WarHorse team have witnessed hundreds of veterans go through this metamorphosis, they say seeing a veteran on the verge of ending their life have a positive breakthrough never gets any less gratifying.
“We have had veterans of every war going back to Korea, all genders, ages, ranks, military branches, etc. and we have found the program to be predictable, sequential, and repeatable for everyone. Regardless of what trauma brought them to us, they all have this ‘tripped circuit breaker’ we talk about and connecting with the horses can reset that breaker regardless of what caused it. Without a doubt, if it hadn’t been for the horses, these 700 at-risk lives would not have been dramatically impacted the way they have,” he says.
The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation has two dedicated teams in place: one in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and one at their satellite location in Aiken, S.C. To learn more about the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation, visit SaratogaWarHorse.org. On the website, veterans can find contact information and are encouraged to reach out to Saratoga WarHorse directly.