What happens when you take rescued horses – some who have been abused, starved or neglected – and pair them with veterans struggling to deal with deep wounds from their past?

A miraculous program that participants call both life changing, and lifesaving.

Like people, horses can have strong personalities. However, those who work with them understand that by nature, they are gentle, intuitive beings with a willingness to please and an uncanny ability to mirror a person’s deepest emotions. This unique attribute makes them good partners to aid in overcoming personal hurdles. 

Recognizing this strength, Coachella Valley Horse Rescue Director Annette Garcia and Co-director Dave DiMeno (a veteran himself) created a program they call Horsinality Boot Camp: Rescued Horses Helping to Heal Vets. What started as a four-week pilot program launched on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2017, continues as a weekly gathering that all hope to see grow.

“Many of these horses have had to learn to trust again,” says Garcia, who is a certified horse professional and considered a horse whisperer by many. “Dakota has scars on his legs from being tied with barbed wire; Buttercup has had 11 different homes. They have been through a lot, just like our vets, and are all trying to overcome PTSD.” Garcia has worked tirelessly with the horses in her care and their transformation is incredible; she is now watching the horses pass on their lessons.

The participating vets, who hail from every branch of the military and decades of conflict, previously had little to no interaction with horses and found the initial introduction intimidating. However, it wasn’t long before they started recognizing their similarities.

Understanding and trust are important values when working with horses.

“Horses are warriors like us and have a fight or flight mentality,” says Army vet Richard Finn of Desert Hot Springs.  “They are healing from their pasts and we are healing with them; they are trusting us, and we are learning to trust them.”

The four-week pilot program became a weekly event to which all look forward.

Initially, many thought they would simply be going trail riding, but that is not the case. Most lessons are taught on the ground while learning to work cohesively – and to communicate – with their equine partner. They are challenged with directing a horse with no halter or lead rope, and walking through a course with obstacles representing hurdles or doors to things in their past. Each challenge builds on the last, and the vets start to learn that while you can force a horse to do something for you, you’ll get a better outcome if you ask; the more you push, the more resistance you’ll get. A program motto is “If you take the time it takes, it takes less time.”

Co-director veteran Dave DiMeno with Sassy

“Horses don’t care how much you know,” says Garcia, “but they know how much you care.” Participants work with different horses and lessons are learned from each. “We like these guys to find horses they can relate to, and sometimes the horse picks them,” says DiMeno. “And then we tell them the story of the horse.”

Because horses tend to mirror their handlers, Garcia  has seen a horse work with five different people in a day, and each time the horse is different. One participant was set to work with a calm, sweet mare who pinned her ears back and nipped at his shirt uncharacteristically. Afterwards Garcia asked him, “What are you holding onto? Do you have a lot of anger?” He said that indeed he did, and that he would commonly go off on others, which made sense to Garcia. “She’s actually trying to help you release that. She is mirroring you and showing you yourself. She can help you to let it go.” He got it and once they started working together, the change was amazing. “She was showing him how to relax, and even lay down during a class which, again, is uncharacteristic.”

After eight weeks, the group graduated to riding and their first experience was bareback with their eyes closed. They described the experience as scary, enlightening and exciting, almost like “a magic carpet ride” (the experience is safely guarded and no one has ever fallen off).

“Each day you come, you are in a different place and the horse will tell you where you are before you even notice – or Annette will because she is watching the horse,” says Sean Harrington of Rancho Mirage, adding that everyone gets something different at different times.

“You may go into the day thinking ‘this is what I want to work on,’” adds Finn, “but once you come in contact with your horse, he may get something completely different in his mind. One day my horse was nibbling on me and I brushed it off, but he continued to do it and finally, I had had enough and said ‘Stop!’ firmly which is when I realized ‘Oh, my God, that is exactly what I let people do to me in life.’ The horse knew and that is what he had to show me that day.”

Co-director Annette Garcia and Riley

As a group, they get to observe the transformation in each other which has bonded and made them very close.

Greg Clark and Buttercup in the obstacle course

“Once you get out here, you are in a different world,” says Bill Terranova of La Quinta. “It’s a safe place to be, and the way I work, there just aren’t a lot of safe places. I come here and feel like I can be myself and say whatever I want and these people understand. That is why I love coming here; the camaraderie is amazing…and who would have ever thought you could have this kind of connection with a horse?”

The pilot program team: (Left to right) David Torres, Richard Finn, Lobo McGuire, Bill Terranova, Co-Director Dave DiMeno, Sean Harrington, Greg Clark, Sara Carrasco, Ismael Rodriguez (Art Caudillo not pictured)

“In the real world, they don’t understand what PTSD is,” adds Sara Carrasco of Cathedral City. “The horses just accept you no matter what, just like all these guys.”

Harrington adds that is it nice to have a place that doesn’t revolve around alcohol as many gathering places for vets tend to do. “It’s nice having a different focus and it brings us together in a different light.”

“When we first started this program, I thought it would be a success if we could get just one vet to take a positive step forward in their life,” adds DiMeno. “But after one week, these guys were flying.” No one from the pilot program has left, and many hope to work with future vets who join the program.

“We’ve got nothing but good stuff to say about this place,” said Terranova. “The more people that hear about it and can also be helped, the better.”

Everyone is encouraged to get involved and support this program. If you are a veteran, contact the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue for program start dates. If you would like to sponsor a vet, donations are welcomed and necessary to continue and grow the program. Sponsorships for horses are also available and volunteers are needed.

For more information, visit coachellavalleyhorserescue.org or call (760) 808.6279. Editorial by Lauren Del Sarto, publisher Desert Health.

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