According to Marine veteran Jim Welch, very few animals capture the American spirit more than a wild mustang. Welch and Patti Gruber run Operation Wild Horse (OWH) — a nonprofit rehabilitation program dedicated to equine-assisted learning for veterans, service members and their families.
Located on 10 acres in Bull Valley, Illinois, OWH uses horses to help veterans and service members tackle service-related challenges including PTSD, TBI, transition and reintegration issues, depression, and anxiety. Last year, the organization worked with almost 300 military and veteran families and provided nearly 2,000 therapy sessions.
One of the most frequent questions Welch receives is: “Is OWH a horse rescue program or a vet rescue program?”
“The answer is simple. We are both. The natural giving spirit from the selflessness of vets pairs perfectly with animal rescue of these mustangs,” he said.
Mustangs, descendants from domesticated Iberian horses brought to America by the Spanish, are free roaming horses found in the western United States. Under the Congressionally-approved 1971 Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages and protects free roaming herds. As part of BLM’s population control initiatives, some animals are placed into private care.
All of the horses OWH rehabilitates are wild mustangs. The organization currently has 14 horses in their care. Some were rescued, some were donated and others were procured from BLM.
“There are so many similarities between mustangs and vets,” Welch said. “The fight or flight instinct is the same. Horses brought out of the wild have to be tamed. The same could be said for vets struggling to reintegrate into society.”
The program has three simple rules: ensure the safety of the rider, ensure the safety of the horse, and ensure the safety of spectators. After that, OWH can make each program or session flexible to the needs of the participant.
According to Gruber, those needs can vary by the session and depend upon how someone is feeling on a particular day. Sometimes a veteran may just want to sit and watch the horses rather than ride that day. Other sessions can include individual rides or rides with family as a way to bond. Some enrolled in the program have even participated in color guard parades in their local communities.
When asked why this program works, Gruber stressed the importance of veterans having the space to connect with other vets and horses.
“The program lets people do self-discovery. Vets are having conversations with other vets or with horses,” she said. “They just need someone to listen.”
“We say our motto is horses helping vets helping horses,” Welch said.
The benefits of equine-assisted learning include emotional awareness, social skills, impulse control, confidence, trust, and empathy. Many people struggling with trauma and health issues work with horses as a path to wellness. One of the biggest benefits of working with horses is the idea of building trust between the animal and the rider, a concept familiar to many struggling with PTSD.
Ryan Bentley, a Marine veteran, has been a OWH participant for three years. Riding itself helps previous injuries in his hips and back but the connection to the animals is larger.
“Working with these horses gives you an opportunity to build trust. I wasn’t one to go out in public,” Bentley said describing his return from a combat deployment in Iraq. “I came back from [Iraq] losing friends and others didn’t understand what I went through.”
Prior to participating in the OWH program, Bentley had never worked with horses.
“Every horse has a different personality, just like people.”
Last July, Bentley participated in a color guard parade on horseback in Des Plaines, Illinois, a town near where he grew up.
“The pride I felt was amazing. It felt like being welcomed home from representing the country I love.”
Recently, Bentley starting riding at OWH with his wife and son.
“This is something we can do together. We are a family listening together. We are building a bond together.”
More information about OWH can be found at https://OperationWildHorse.org or on the organization’s Facebook page.
By: Susan Malandrino