Healing Heroes: How horses offer hope to veterans coping with mental illness

Semper Fi & America’s Fund is a national nonprofit that helps veterans transition to civilian life

STONEWALL, Texas – They risked their lives to protect others, but once their mission is complete, veterans are faced with a different type of battle. The transition to civilian life can often be plagued with emotional stress and isolation.

James Holbrook understands the challenges most veterans face.

“I was in the United States Navy. I was a Navy corpsman with Third Marines out of Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. I did my tours to Afghanistan in 2007, 2008 in the Kashmir Valley and the Korengal Valley. We had to grow up quickly. You have to finish the mission, and that mission is getting home. The isolation that PTSD will do to some veterans like myself, it made me want to isolate and say no to everything because I was in my bubble, I was in my comfort zone,” he said.

Common mental health problems associated with veterans include PTSD, substance use disorders, anxiety, or even suicidal thoughts.

Holbrook said he found healing and hope with the help of horses.

“With your PTSD problems, it’s constantly trying to find another way to think something. So, you constantly have to be present. With Semper Fi & America’s Fund, what they did was found something that veterans can use to help come back as a group, come back and be around like-minded veterans and have that brotherhood sisterhood again,” he said.

Semper Fi & America’s Fund is a national nonprofit organization that was established by military spouses in 2003. The organization provides financial support, resources, and programing for combat wounded, critically ill, and injured service members, veterans, and military families across all branches of the US Armed Forces.

Col. John Mayer explains how the organization’s horsemanship program impacts veterans.

“This really is designed to rejuvenate the spirit of guys who are wounded critically or injured or have a critical illness. You want to be able to get that spirit back and show them that they still, no matter what their disability is, they still got ability. And you come out and you ride a horse and you sort that cattle,” he said.

Mayer is the director of The Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program. It was created in 2011 and helps to build confidence and skills by working on cattle ranches across the country. The program develops trust of a horse empowers the mind, body, and soul.

“This program’s very unique in that it takes them out the big ranches out west, and they work in support of the rancher as a team, accomplishing a mission for the rancher. And usually it’s something like moving cattle into a national forest permit or bringing them out, helping gather and brand their calves every year. And what they’re doing now is sorting the cattle through marketing and shipping,” he said.

Ranch sorting is also an equestrian sport that requires two people to sort cattle in numerical order. Mayer said, although it is a competitive sport, veterans enjoy connecting with their horses and each other.

“The horse doesn’t care about your past, doesn’t care if you’ve been blown up, doesn’t care that you’re missing an arm or a leg. It doesn’t care where you’re going. What it cares about is right now, and that’s the beauty of horses,” he said.

Richard Carson is a former US Army Line medic who was seriously injured in Afghanistan in 2010. His injuries required rehabilitation, and he eventually learned to walk with the use of a cane. However, in 2017 a terrible car crash left him paralyzed.

“It was very difficult. I really didn’t, I had no interest in doing a lot of things. Like to drink a lot. Um, didn’t really want to go out anywhere or do anything. I’ve been trying to get back on a horse since the day I broke my neck. I had my own horses beforehand. All I did was ride horses and work. And so for me it was the opportunity to come out here. I didn’t know if it was going to work very good or not, but I was like, ‘at least I can try and see where it goes,’” Carson said.

He did not know any of the other veterans but placed his trust in them as he was lifted from his chair and saddled back into a familiar feeling.

“It was amazing. It was freeing. It gets me on a chair doing something. It’s getting back to something that I love doing. That helped me deal a lot with my PTSD,” Carson said.

Carson believes the real healing begins by saying “yes.”

“I mean, it doesn’t matter what your disability is. If you’re interested in something, there’s a way to to try it. It might not be the same as what you’re used to in the past, but there’s still a way to participate in that activity and do enjoy it,” he said.

About the Authors

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.

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