The veterans who participated in the initial session of the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation program at Equine Rescue found an inviting atmosphere, a powerful connection and the key component of building trust without judgment, according to organizers.

It was the program’s environment – being in a place that was without the daily pressures of life – and training that made the initial session a success, said Robert A. Murphy, USC Aiken director of Veteran and Military Student Success.

Murphy was one of the participating veterans. Three other veterans participated in the first session, each having served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and are based in the area.

The Saratoga WarHorse Foundation sessions will continue throughout the summer in Saratoga, New York, with the next Aiken session scheduled for this fall.

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.

“It was the entire day that complimented itself,” said Murphy.

Murphy, a veterans advocate, said he was initially a skeptic of the program.

“The apex of the day, the tip of the spear, was when the horse (I worked with) lowered its head, and said, ‘I want to be on your team,’” he said.

Murphy’s job provides him with the opportunity to be around other veterans for the preponderance of his day as he transitions back into everyday life. However, most veterans are not as fortunate and don’t have the participation and involvement of enjoying the benefits of camaraderie associated with their experience in the military.

“That’s what this program introduces as well, that there are other people going through the same kind of things,” said Murphy. “Here’s a great opportunity to come together, let your guard down in a very safe environment.”

Murphy will take on the additional responsibility of staying in touch with the other three veterans he met this past weekend.

If Murphy comes across a veteran who is on the outliers, one who is experiencing a difficult time, he’ll recommend Saratoga WarHorse to that individual.

“I’ll let them know they’ll experience a camaraderie again, one they’ve been missing the past few years since being out of the service, while being in a relaxing environment, and learn something about themselves as a predator while hanging out with an unbelievable beast known as prey,” said Murphy.

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