Three years ago I fell under the spell of the horse. It seems strange to me now that it took so long to feel that connection. I grew up in Texas but I was a city-kid. For me, horses were simply part of the landscape, part of the scenery when my family would take long drives to visit our kin in the country. Or they were pictures in a book...or a prop in a TV Western. I just never gave them much thought. At least not until the day three years ago that horses proved to me how they can heal a person’s soul in ways I never would have thought possible.
I have since grown to love and admire this majestic animal. I have also come to rely on the horse as a therapeutic partner in my work counseling veterans struggling to live with the invisible wounds of war. It all started with my kids. I had recently returned from an 18-month combat deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom only to find my marriage over and a new role for me as the fulltime caregiver for my three children.
As hard as this transformation was for me, it was even harder for my kids. Their sense of security and stability had been crushed by a war they didn’t understand, a divorce they didn’t ask for, and a father who was struggling to cope with this new reality. I felt helpless, not knowing what to say or how to act to ease their pain and confusion. I wanted to tell them that it would all work out…that eventually this would all pass and they’d be happy again. But the truth was I wasn’t so sure.
I’ve always taken pride in being self-reliant and capable of overcoming any obstacle. But I’ve also lived long enough to know when to ask for help. I turned to the VA and they referred me to a program called Operation Healthy Reunions that links Iraq and Afghanistan vets and their families with free mental health services in the DFW area. OHR put me in touch with a therapist named Sara Willerson who practices equine-assisted counseling (EAC), a new and exciting therapeutic model that incorporates horses in the process of emotional healing. And emotional healing is exactly what happened.
Over the next few months, I watched with amazement as each one of my children began to find his or her way back from a place of sadness. Self-confidence replaced fear and insecurity as each in turn learned how to earn the trust and respect of their equine companions. Suppertime conversations were filled with excited recitations of what incredible thing they had accomplished that day with their horses. In quieter moments, my oldest would share his personal thoughts with me…something this sensitive, withdrawn boy had never really done before. I felt profoundly grateful each time we turned onto the long dirt road leading to the ranch and I saw my kids’ joyful anticipation at the prospect of seeing the horses. And my heart broke just a little as I listened to my daughter sobbing all the way home after having to say goodbye to her horse in that final session.
In many ways, we were a broken family before Sara and her horses helped us make peace with our new reality. Something about that tranquil setting and the magic of the horses created the perfect setting for the kids to process their grief and move on. Maybe they would have eventually gotten past the pain with the passage of time alone. But I doubt it.
I’ve lived through enough loss in my time to know that it can haunt you forever if you don’t come to terms with it somehow…if you don’t learn to place that emotional trauma in context. But it takes a great deal of courage to confront painful feelings. It often seems so much easier to just lock them away and hope they stay hidden in the dark recesses of our minds. But they never really do. We either learn to control our distressing emotions or they will come to control us. I’ve learned that sometimes the strength needed to face our fears comes in the form of a horse…a noble, loyal, and trusting companion that will accompany us on a journey through the darkness.
Three years ago I fell under the spell of the horse. That spell was powerful enough to change the course of my life. Today, I am beginning a new career as an equine-assisted counselor working with other veterans through the Horses for Heroes program at Rocky Top Therapy Center. I’m still brand new at this form of therapy and I have a lot to learn. But I feel like a child again. The world is big and beautiful and full of possibility. And by my side on this exciting new journey stands a horse.
Jeff spent 21 years as a fighter pilot in the United States Navy. He completed two combat deployments to Iraq before deciding to pursue his master's in mental health counseling from the University of North Texas. Jeff graduates this year and currently counsels other veterans through the Horses for Heroes program at Rocky Top Therapy Center in Keller, Texas . Jeff lives in Frisco, Texas with his three kids, two dogs, one cat, and two rats.
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