Hugging horses

By Sean Riley

The hunters and the hunted (Issue II/2021)


A participant in Gratitude America's Warrior PATHH program in Florida relaxes on the back of a horse. Photo: Gratitude America

At the age of 19, I joined the US Army out of High School. I was trained in Special Operations and ended up serving with the 3rd Ranger Battalion. I was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, for ten years. I was a captain, lead a team, and was deployed into combat four times between the age of 19 and 26, experiencing things that would have animpact on my life, forming me into who I was forever. Eventually, I was helped to heal through interaction and training with a horse in a program that helps veterans transition back into life. 

My first deployment was from August to October 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia. As Task Force Rangers and with Delta Force, we were there to protect UN food convoys which should supply the starving population. On October 3, we got caught up in a battle in which 18 Rangers and Delta Force Operatives were killed. In total 93 people were wounded within 14 hours of firefights. I was twenty years old when that happened. I saw and did a lot of things that twenty year olds should never have to see or do. 

After the military, I struggled for fifteen years with  alcohol and making decisions. I was married twice, divorced twice. I worked successfully in the corporate world in America but I changed jobs about every two years because I was looking for something I never found again: The camaraderie, the team, that I had in the military just was not to be duplicated in the civilian world. 

When I was into my third marriage, I had a flashback. I had a nightmare and my son, who, at the time was six years, old woke me up. I grabbed him by the throat and threw him across the room against the wall because I was not there in Florida. In my head, I was back in Somalia. 

“I woke up in the hospital and from there went into therapy for Post Traumatic Stress”

That event crushed me emotionally and I decided I didn't want to hurt my family anymore. I took a bunch of pills but did not succeed in my suicide attempt. I woke up in the hospital and from there went into therapy for Post Traumatic Stress. During that time, my therapist recommended a program that was at the Boulder Crest Foundation in Bluemont, Virginia called Warrior PATHH. So, in 2015, I went to take part in an experience that would change my life. Warrior PATHH is a transformative, lifelong, post-traumatic training program for combat veterans and first responders. It includes 48 modules delivered over 74 contact hours with PATHH Guides.

Equine training was one part of this. By working with horses, veterans are reintroduced to the concept of connection, something that they often lose overseas. Horses hold men responsible and make sure that their emotions are authentic and that it is treated properly before it lets you approach it. If you are angry, depressed, anxious or ramped up from whatever is going on in your life, the horse will not let you approach it until you calm down. I hadn’t had much contact with horses before and I was a little fearful walking up to it. Horses are huge animals. But once I started brushing it, I realised the horse wasn't something to be afraid of. The horse's name was Danny Boy and he bonded with me. 

“Horses help the veteran to become more self-aware”

Coming home from a war, veterans are often full of fear because of what we've been through. We isolate ourselves at home, just because we don't want to face something that might cause us fear. Because fear, for a soldier, is a weakness. At least in American society it is considered that way. Horses help the veteran to become more self-aware. The goal of the initial exercise is to approach the horse and put a harness on its head and a lead rope. The horse is not going to allow that to happen until you reflect inwardly upon yourself and can control your emotion and bring your anger down to where you're at peace with yourself and your environment. Boulder Crest and Warrior PATHH related that to our families back home. We tend to lead with anger when we return from deployments. Working with these horses allows us to reflect on how we're reacting. 

One exercise to train this is called “pressure and release”. In this I held a lunge whip up in the air while holding a lee line which is attached to the horse and I said “back, back, back, back”. The horse walks backwards, away from me. As I was trying to do that, the instructors pointed out that this is how family members react to our emotions, our anger, our overbearing tendencies to react and yell. They back out of our space because we put too much pressure on them. Once the horse has backed up you turn sideways and dip your head down, you slump your shoulders to form a submissive position to the horse. That takes the pressure off the horse and it realises you're not going to hurt it and that you're not angry anymore. Then, the horse will then always walk right back up to you. That's a very powerful moment. I've seen Rangers like myself, Navy SEALs, people on the top echelons of our military cry and hug their horses at that point in time. If I release some of that pressure I'm going to be able to make true, appropriate connections in life, outside of the military. That is not easy as soldiers are mainly trained to react. To react to direct fire, to indirect fire, to contact. If we take the time to think and form a reasonable response, we get killed. If you do that for one year overseas and then you come home and the next weekend you're at a soccer game with your four year old, it's very hard to make the adjustment from reaction to responding.

Equine training helped me become self-aware of who I was now. I decided to continue working with horses after the program. In this way, I could continue to grow and become a father, a husband, an employee and a civilian again and lose my identity as just a soldier. I now work as the full-time equine director for Gratitude America, a non-profit that teaches the Warrior PATHH curriculum. During the pandemic, we had to shut down our program at Gratitude America between May and October 2020. We kept petitioning the board at the organisation to reopen. The suicide rate among veterans is around 22 per day. When the government tells you to self-isolate, these people fall off the board. They need help. We continued the training from October 2020 on and have been running ever since, following the regulations by wearing masks, social distancing and taking our temperatures every morning.

“Connecting with horses has gotten me back out of the house, back into society again”

One final exercise as we teach it here in Florida is called “opportunity road”. Veterans use white plastic pipes to create a path with one opening, one exit and two turns. The instructor watches to see how participants work together as a team, how they connect with one another as veterans, do they get stressed out, do they give orders or do they work together as a team to finish the task. They lead the horses inside the path and they have to throw the line back and forth across the path to get the horse through it. That exercise is elevated every single time the horse goes through the path. Rules are added. You have to work together in order to get the horse along the path without dropping the line. At the end of the exercise, the asks what the biggest obstacle is that you want to conquer in your life now you are back at home. In my case, the obstacle was making up the relationship with my son who I threw across the room. Fortunately, that has worked out: I told my son how sorry I was for my extreme reaction and explained to him how working with horses helps me. I hardly have any bad nightmares any more. And I promised my son that I will continue to work on myself so that he doesn't have to be afraid of his dad. 

In the meantime I have my own horse who I get to see my own horse almost every day. Her name is Rosie. My daughter is the one who rides her. I will ride her occasionally but I use her more just to groom and love on and hug and to talk to if I need to talk to somebody. Connecting with horses has gotten me back out of the house, back into society again, working, doing things most people do everyday. I'm not at the end of the road but I'm certain I’m on the way.

As told to Fabian Ebeling

Translated by Jess Smee

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