U.S. Army veteran Patrick Benson knows firsthand the physical and emotional strain veterans feel on a daily basis. He served in the Infantry from 1998 to 2004, spending time in combat zones throughout the Middle East. After he retired, Benson, like many, struggled to transition back to civilian life, battling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other invisible scars of service. The young veteran found light at the end of what could have been a very dark tunnel by studying under John Lyons and becoming a horse trainer.
Horses, he believes, saved his life.
“They gave me a sense of compassion, forgiveness and humility,” Benson says. “I learned to be vulnerable again.”
It occurred to Benson that if horses saved his life, maybe they could do the same for others.
In 2014, determined to help other veterans find healing through horses as he had, Benson—along with friends Patricia and Andy Brown—founded the Kansas City-based nonprofit War Horses for Veterans. Their vision was to provide a safe and peaceful place where combat veterans could come together for a long weekend to work with horses, connect with mentors and break down the tough, self-protective walls built during service. Lodging, transportation, and meals are completely free to participants who may return as often as they like as a mentor, so long as they bring another veteran back with them. The organization has served more than 200 veterans and now also accepts first responders.
Veteran Doug Hebbard participated in the War Horses program for the first time in July 2018, and the experience was so rewarding that he came back as a mentor with a fellow veteran last fall. Like Benson, he credits horse with saving his life.
After leaving the Army, Hebbard felt unmoored and suffered deep depression. Benson explains that returning to civilian life can be a shock. “You are lost. It feels chaotic. Your new purpose might not be as meaningful,” he says. Along with physical injuries, veterans often grapple with feelings of guilt, loneliness, and anxiety. Hebbard struggled with them all. But through horsemanship lessons, equine-assisted life coaching and bonding with an empathetic horse named Dualcheck, Hebbard says he’s learned to calm his inner self and has regained the confidence necessary to live a happy, loving life. “Best of all,” he says, “I’m now able to be the husband my wife deserves.” Hebbard now rides as often as he can, continuing to find happiness, acceptance, and purpose with horses.
“The Horse Never Rejects Us for Who We Are”
Equine-assisted life coach Kelley Slagle serves as an optimistic and compassionate force on the War Horses staff and has witnessed the power of her equine co-workers time and time again. She believes that working with horses is so effective at helping people deal with trauma because it fulfills “the deep need we are seeking of shared experience and vulnerability. [Working with horses] will forever shift the feelings you have about yourself because you will now have a concrete example of a time you showed up as yourself and were seen and accepted. … The horse sees all of us and never rejects us for who we are.”
Slagle explains that through horses, people start to realize that the harmful messages they believe about themselves—that they’re broken, damaged, bad—aren’t true. She says, “A horse never rejects an honest human… It blows the cover off our belief that if we share our darker thoughts, everyone will leave.”
Slagle and the entire War Horses staff see their equine partners as reminders that authentic connections are possible. “The connection of that horse, that is everywhere. People who love you and care about you are holding that connection,” Slagle says.
Men and women come to War Horses with various degrees of darkness clouding their hearts, believing the misguided stories that make them feel less than. But by the time they leave the program, they have begun the journey toward rediscovering lightness, hope, and joy. They leave with more room in their hearts for the beauty the world has to offer, and with the self-acceptance and forgiveness that only comes from confronting demons—with a horse by their side.