I don’t know the first thing about horses.
When you tell someone who has no knowledge or experience with horses that a single day in the round-pen with a horse can be a first step toward healing and learning to trust again, I tend to have my doubts.
But I saw it happen . . . it happened for me . . .
And it can happen for you.
One of my personal frustrations to current interventions to PTS, anxiety, and related conditions is that family, friends, and comrades tell you to “talk to someone.” What if you are not ready? What if you can’t? What if the thought of talking about the darkness inside you is more terrifying than the emotions themselves?
The greatest challenge I had when I endured my anxiety was my own internal identity crisis. When I had my panic attacks, I didn’t know or understand why they happened. I didn’t know or could not remember when the night terrors started. If you can’t understand or explain how these things happen to you, how can you possibly verbalize them to someone else? How do you trust yourself to release what terrifies you from the inside? You don’t. You can’t. In fact, you go the other way, you spend all of your conscious energy trying to suppress what is inside of you in the hopes that you can recover the person you once were.
For loved ones, spouses, and families who endure this struggle, I can understand your frustration. You feel disconnected. You can’t understand why the person you love can’t open up to you. What I would encourage you to consider is that your loved one is disconnected, but not from you – from themselves. I know I felt ashamed that I couldn’t share this with my wife – my best friend, my world – because I felt so much overwhelming shame in myself.
So maybe the first step to healing is one that goes beyond speech. Saratoga WarHorse offers veterans a three-day experience that has proven to be effective and invaluable for those struggling to adjust to life after military service. The program, founded by Vietnam Veteran (and fellow 101st MEDEVAC alum) Bob Nevins, is provided at no cost to Veterans. Even your travel to beautiful Aiken, South Carolina, or Saratoga, New York, is provided to you – free of cost. Through the Connection Process, an interactive experience is created between off-the-track Thoroughbreds and Veterans. By utilizing the silent language of the horse, a mutual trust and profound bond is established that goes beyond verbal communication.
The horses, traumatized from a harsh life on the track, are in pain. YOU, traumatized from your military experience, are in pain. The beauty of this intervention is that the horse reads your body language and your emotion. You don’t say a word, and on that shared ground inside the round-pen you make a connection at a level well beneath the surface, in the depths where the pain resides. When it happens, the connection is undeniable – some Veterans cry, some Veterans laugh, but in every case, Veterans express emotions long buried under the shame, guilt, and trauma from their service . . . and they express a desire, the courage to take the next step in their process of healing.
Describing the experience and the outcomes are difficult, because it is a personal, non-verbal exercise. There are no reports, no surveys, and no charts. It is just you, the horse, and in the reflection of the big, dark eyes of the horse, many Veterans find themselves – the person lost so long ago. They discover the connection – the connection to themselves.
How much does this help? I went through the program with six other Veterans, and I can share this: Every single individual that came out from the round-pen with their horse was a different person from who they were when they entered that same round-pen. Perhaps this is the first step for Veterans and families who struggle through PTS, anxiety, and guilt. Perhaps we ask forgiveness without saying a word. Perhaps the journey starts with atonement. Maybe, just maybe, atonement begins in the round-pen.