Non-Profit Provides Therapy to Veterans through Horse and Human Companionship
By Zoë Dunning
On a boiling morning in late June with temperatures already climbing into the upper 90s, I visited War Horses for Veterans. Located on 18 acres in Stilwell, Kansas, this nonprofit is run by combat veterans for combat veterans. Several dozen highly-trained horses (including three former world champions) provide therapy and companionship. But the program is different from traditional equine therapy.
Senior staff member Gary Llewellyn explains that veterans come to the property to spend three days learning horsemanship 101 free of charge. By the end of the first day, they’re able to ride by themselves, learning how to control a horse in a pen with only their body.
“That’s a real big confidence booster,” he says. Once they graduate from the pen, they practice in the big arena before they’re given free rein of the property and trails. Some even learn to jump.
Co-founded in 2014 by Patrick Benson, an Army veteran, and Andy and Patricia Brown, the property owners, War Horses for Veterans was born out of a mutual desire to provide personal and professional opportunities for veterans. The Browns live on the land, providing the funding and acting as surrogate mom and dad. Benson, who directs the organization, is a professional horseman and manages horse training and breeding.
Since they’ve been operating, the staff has seen 160 people come through, representing every war from WWII to Iraq. One thing remains the same: Each veteran leaves lighter and freer, some smiling for the first time in decades.
With most programs, says John Parker, Director of Development, you come once, you finish, and there’s no follow up. War Horses for Veterans invites you to return as often as you like. Many do, bringing with them other combat veterans. Always, their airfare and rides are covered.
“Our family is huge,” Parker says. “We talk to the guys and girls who come through every week. When you leave on Sunday, that’s just the beginning of our relationship.”
On any given day, you’ll see a group of veterans riding. And once they’ve mastered the basics, they can pass their knowledge on to the next student.
“This empowers and inspires veterans,” Parker says. “We want them to go out and be in leadership positions again in their communities. We know they can do it.”
The nonprofit’s motto is “Horses are the bridge, and veterans are their own best therapy.” The primary focus is on relationships, not just between horse and rider but also between veterans with similar experiences, especially those suffering from PTSD.
“The ice starts to chip off of you,” Parker says. “You don’t have to shoulder the burden of what you’ve been through alone anymore. There’s pills, there’s therapy, and then there’s creating a brotherhood.”
The organization has moved eight men who’ve been through the program and their families to Kansas City, helping them find houses and jobs. They also help veterans deal with the VA, connect them to counseling and medical resources, and invest in businesses and higher education.
“We had one veteran who was on the brink of committing suicide who was accepted to the program. We encouraged him to still come and give it a chance. He’s been back four times, he’s finishing his degree in construction management, and he’ll be on the cover of the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine,” Parker shares. “He attributes it all to the program.”
The weekend horsemanship program will soon extend to law enforcement and first responders, and a new program that encourages fishing, hunting and camping is starting. Also, this year, the nonprofit is sponsoring “Warrior Wednesday.” Anyone with a military ID gets a free ticket to the Kansas City T-Bones Wednesday home games. And on August 11, the group is sponsoring the 2018 Warhouse Games, the biggest outdoor functional fitness event in Kansas City at the T-bones Stadium as well as its annual Veteran’s Day War Horses for Veterans 5k. To make a donation or learn more, see warhorsesforveterans.com.