The bearded cowboy looks completely at home in these environs. At the Crossed Arrows Ranch, a small working ranch in the high desert country south of Santa Fe, rolling hills of chaparral and dirt roads extend to a horizon punctuated by the dusky, towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Against this backdrop, the cowboy prepares his horse with the practiced, assured motions of someone who’s performed this routine many times before. With his black felt hat, pressed shirt, and canvas work vest, he looks straight from a calendar.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Eric Yorty, a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was in a very different environment, wearing a very different uniform.

Sgt. Eric Yorty, wounded in action in Iraq, is a graduate of the Horses For Heroes Cowboy Up! program.

At the age of 17, Yorty joined the Army as an infantryman. Soon after, his unit deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, to a high-violence region known as the Triangle of Death where he was wounded in action.

Upon returning home, he realized that reacclimating to civilian life would be a difficult transition. In addition to his physical injuries, he had emotional wounds to contend with—the invisible scars of service. Yorty was no stranger to combat, but this was a whole new battle—one he wasn’t adequately prepared for. Like many servicemen and -women, he experienced a disconnect from the life and community he knew before and struggled to find meaning and direction. 

“After coming back, my friends and I started to face challenges that we didn’t anticipate,” Yorty says. “The biggest hurdles were realizing I had issues I needed to deal with, and then seeking out help for those issues. For me, and a lot of guys like me, that’s one of the toughest steps.”

In his search for help Yorty came across the Cowboy Up! program at Horses For Heroes. Headquartered at the Crossed Arrows, the non-profit has a critical mission: helping all post- 9/11 veterans and active-duty military personnel—especially those who’ve sustained combat trauma or physical injuries during their service—reclaim their lives through the camaraderie of fellow participants and the incredible healing power of horses. 

Where It Starts

Executive Director Rick Iannucci along with his wife and co-founder, Nancy De Santis, are the visionaries behind Horses For Heroes. As an ex-Green Beret, retired U.S. Marshal, seminary- trained and ordained minister, and lifelong horseman, Iannucci is unusually qualified to not only intuitively understand the military mindset and unique struggles of the program participants, but also how horses can aid in their path toward healing. The goal, he explains, is to take the skills participants learned in the military and adapt those skills for the cowboy way of life and beyond.

“And that starts with American horsemanship,” he says.

A half-dozen Quarter Horses make the program’s powerful work possible. Some come with impressive papers filled with legacy and performance bloodlines and others are home-bred working stock. Whether veteran or horse, it’s not pedigree that matters, but character. Each of the four-legged instructors are handpicked for their character and special abilities. Some excel as emotional tuning forks, radiating trust and profound empathy, while others have mission-oriented mindsets that are perfect for a day of moving cattle or working the branding pen.

Participants begin working with horses from the very first day of the Cowboy Up! program. They start with groundwork, eventually moving to the round pen, and then begin riding. Day work at neighboring ranches allows participants to give their new skills a real-world purpose. Along the way, Iannucci and De Santis—a certified Equine Gestalt Coach, CCHI riding instructor, and trauma specialist—offer guidance and feedback. From grooming and tacking to riding and simply co-existing, every moment spent with the horses is geared toward relationship-building.

“Working on that connection is key,” explains De Santis. “The connection that comes from working with a horse is definitely what brings an individual to have that connection with themselves.

What happens, unfortunately, is that when you’re in the military, you’re armored up. When you get out, the struggle is that you’re not guided on how to armor down.”

Helping veterans “armor down” is precisely what the horses do best. They’re key components in helping participants overcome what Iannucci and De Santis call “post-traumatic spiritual dissonance,” the emotional discord experienced by combat veterans. Iannucci explains that working with horses encourages participants to be present, practice patience, develop boundaries, improve communication, and learn to trust.

“Horses don’t lie,” says Yorty. “Whatever kind of energy you’re putting out, that horse is going to reflect it right back to you, and that’s a great tool in building self-awareness.”

Tech Sergeant Robin Hopkins, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and National Guard and Cowboy Up! participant says, “Horses teach us to focus our intention by commanding us to be in the present moment. The mindfulness that you learn with a horse is a tool that you can use anywhere. The horse reminds me just to relax, and that it gets better.”

Cowboy Up! participant, Tech Sgt. Robin Hopkins.

Finally, Home

Yorty, now a Cowboy Up! instructor, gets back to work. He swings his leg over the compact sorrel and moves off through the scrub brush. Iannucci mounts his own horse and joins him. They ride abreast, kicking up enough dust to fully silhouette them in a golden cloud.

Later, they’ll join program participants, volunteers, and friends around the bunkhouse table for a family-style home-cooked meal. As easily as dishes are passed, the conversation drifts from pop-culture to fence repair to war. There’s no judgment here, only understanding, good company, good food, and good horses. If Yorty looks completely at home in these environs, it’s because that’s exactly where he is. 

[Read more: For Love of Rodeo and Country]

[Read more: Saving Each Other]

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