A departure from the battlefield, for many soldiers, in no way guarantees a seamless transition to an ordinary routine when returning home.

Many of these returning warriors find themselves having to cope with a number of mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, self-destructive behavior, displacement and suicidal thoughts. They often find themselves in a dark place, a destination that no type of medication or psychiatric therapy seems to be able to resolve.

Hope and promise

However, there is a program that seems to be resetting the figurative circuit breakers that have been tripped.

Saratoga WarHorse provides a unique bonding opportunity between off-the-track Thoroughbred racehorses, who are winding down from a competitive career on the racetrack, and veterans who are returning home from combat.

The program itself is a three-day confidential, peer-to-peer program dealing with the aforementioned mental health issues affecting the veteran population. Saratoga WarHorse has partnered with a local facility, Equine Rescue of Aiken, which will serve as the first satellite for the program.

Aiken residents and Saratoga WarHorse board members Jack Wetzel and Anne Campbell, and the rescue's manager Jim Rhodes, played key roles in making the satellite program become a reality.

Dragonfly Farm's Julie Robins will be the lead instructor for the Aiken program.

Understanding the needs of others

Saratoga WarHorse Foundation was founded by Vietnam veteran Bob Nevins, a medical evacuation helicopter pilot for the 101st Airborne, who was wounded himself. Nevins knows first hand the challenges veterans face, not only the physical injuries they have to overcome, but the scarring from emotional limitations that, at times, is far greater than that of the physical wounds they may have received.

The program places an emphasis on taking action, making connections and changing lives, said Nevins.

“Taking action is really the key here,” said Nevins. “Everyday you can read in the newspaper, see on television and they're talking about record suicides in the military. What's happening to these young men and women? We all know we can't identify who's going to be the next suicide victim. But what are we going to do about it? The program is designed specifically to deal with that question and to also help engage the community to take action.”

Finding a critical component

Saratoga WarHorse pairs horses and soldiers. The horses assist the soldiers, and the soldiers save the horses who otherwise may have met an untoward fate by ending up in a slaughter house. The horses will eventually be trained for other vocations and go on to careers in other disciplines.

The veterans participating in the three-day program will be in a group of six, learn about horse safety, horse psychology, build the round corral that they and the horse will share and start a connection process that will help recondition the way they think, as the veteran begins to heal and bond with their equine counterpart.

Happiness, peace and progress return to the participating veterans at the soul level, said Nevins.

“They start to feel again who they are after being shut down for so long,” said Nevins.

The first step

The process for a veteran to be considered for the program usually starts with Saratoga WarHorse receiving a phone call from the soldier's wife or a family member. The veteran will then call, and Nevins will have a short conversation with that individual as a qualifier.

“We ask them one simple question,” said Nevins. “'How are you sleeping?' After I ask that question, they know that I know. When somebody's been through a traumatic event of any type, something in them shuts down. They're disconnecting in order to survive emotionally. Sleeping becomes an issue. They don't want to sleep because of the nightmares. We're not here to talk about war stories. We're here to end the nightmares.”

The veterans going through the program are taught the secrets of the language of the horse, they're put in a round pen, and then it's up to the veteran to create the atmosphere, the bond that comes with learning how to speak the language, said Nevins.

“When that horse comes to them, it is so emotionally powerful that it's resetting the circuit breaker that's popped because of the trauma,” said Nevins. “What we've found is we can make the connection, but the veteran only wants to do that when they can trust who they're talking to. When the horse comes to them it's the only way we've found that can trigger the response. If the veteran goes to a bad place, they can remember their experience in the round pen.”

The importance of community

It was Anne Campbell who approached Saratoga WarHorse about coming to Aiken, explaining to Nevins that the community was the warmest, most welcoming, enthusiastic and friendly town, with an outstanding horse tradition. When Jim Rhodes found out about the program, he called Campbell and volunteered the rescue as the site. Campbell came out to the facility, was impressed with its serenity and beauty and called Nevins who came to Aiken.

People in the community will have an opportunity to become involved by reaching out and touching those veterans, said Nevins. Equine Rescue of Aiken and the financial assistance from the citizens of Aiken are among the variables making the program possible.

“We're just going through the motions, but somebody has to help us reach that veteran,” said Nevins. “You're actually reaching out and touching that individual because we have something that works. We're going to continue what we do. We're asking for your help, anything you can do to financially support Saratoga WarHorse and the Aiken program.”

Ben Baugh has been covering the equine industry and equestrian sport for the Aiken Standard since 2004.