It has only been in recent years that our society has recognized post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat military personnel returning home from war and anyone else exposed to an extreme traumatic event that has altered their life. Going back to World War I, this disorder was trivialized with the term shell shock. There are a number of therapeutic programs and medications now to treat this disorder that has disrupted and often ruined so many lives. While the success rate of these programs can vary, most of them unsuccessful, there is one, on a smaller scale, with a 100 percent success rate that is still in its fledgling stage and seeking the means to expand.
The difference between this program and others is that this one bypasses the traditional psychotherapy and medication and goes directly to one’s soul. And what has touched the human soul for centuries? Horses.
There lies the foundation of Saratoga WarHorse, based in a small facility in Wilton, N.Y., some 15 miles north of the horse Mecca of Saratoga Springs.
Bob Nevins, a former medevac helicopter pilot with the 101st Airborne who was wounded in Vietnam, founded Saratoga WarHorse several years ago after retiring as an airline captain and knows how the horrors of war can damage a young person by wiping out all the beauty and innocence of youth and creating a vacuous view of life that is remedied only through escape. That escape often manifests itself in depression and even a suicide attempt.
“You can wave the flag and send a kid to war with a nice clean uniform, and when he comes home he’s gone from high school basketball star to killing some 15-year-old kid accidentally in Afghanistan or doing something that is totally against what he’s been raised to do and believe,” Nevins said.
“I’m not trying to be all things to all veterans. I’m taking that percentage of kids who are on track to kill themselves and I have to reach out to them as a veteran and gently coax them to take a chance on coming here. I don’t use words like therapy and all the buzz words the military wants you to use, like building resiliency. A guy sitting in the dark with a gun in his mouth doesn’t want to hear your happy chat. I just want to do what I do quietly, because it’s so powerful and really helps the veterans. I’m talking about kids who are suicidal. The turnaround is so dramatic, but I have to protect them at the same time. You don’t want to be talking about someone who’s going through the darkest period of their life. So we try to keep it on a personal one on one level.
And that one on one level is with a horse. Winston Churchill said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” That is the key to Saratoga WarHorse. Nevins has shown that all the medication and all the therapy cannot compare to a simple look into the eyes of a horse. For centuries, as long as man has bonded with the horse, those eyes have served as a mirror to the soul.
“When you make this connection with the veterans, they are so emotionally shut down they can’t feel anything,” Nevins said. “But when the connection with the horses takes place it’s like a rush of oxytocin (the hormone that is released when we express our love for someone) that floods their brain, and that is the trigger that shatters the walls that they’ve been hiding behind. So there is actually a medical and scientific reason why this works.
“So many people want to project love onto the horses, which is fine, but horses are really animals of instinct. So we’re engaging them and working with them where they’re most comfortable, while teaching the veterans the horses’ language. As a result, the horse bonds with them and they feel as if the horse understands them. That’s what the veteran needs. It’s internal, because they finally feel accepted.”
The process and results of Saratoga WarHorse can be witnessed in videos and stories presented on their website (Saratogawarhorse.org). To get the full emotional impact of what transpires there you just have to watch the horses, all of whom are rescued Thoroughbreds, come to the veteran in the round pen and then follow him around. This is accomplished by several movements and gestures that are taught to the veteran by accomplished horse whisperers. The results are startling, from the look on the veteran’s face when the horse comes to him to his emotional reaction to the entire experience.
“Because of how vulnerable and sensitive these guys are, I have to do this in a very short period of time, which we can do because the secret takes place in the round pen,” Nevins said. “I don’t need them for three weeks or 10 sessions. I just prep them, they go in, they have the experience, and to them it’s life changing. We just stand back, and when they come out crying we just give them a couple of hugs and send them back to their family. There was one guy who didn’t cry and I really expected him to. When I brought him back to the airport, he put his bags down and looked at me and just broke down crying and kept thanking me. It’s all about this release in the mind.”
Saratoga WarHorse is not only about veterans. It is about anyone dealing with an emotional, life-altering trauma who needs to regain their focus in life. That is where recently retired jockey Ramon Dominguez enters the picture.
Dominguez was at the peak of his career as one of leading jockeys in America when he was involved in a spill at Aqueduct on Jan. 18, in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury that forced him to retire. To suddenly give up the only thing he knew how to do and what he loved the most left a deep emotional scar that was difficult to deal with.
Anne Campbell, wife of Dogwood Stable owner Cot Campbell, is on the board of Saratoga WarHorse and was amazed at the results when Dominguez went through the program.
“Ramon was doing everything he was supposed to do, but you could tell looking in his eyes he was depressed,” she said. His wife, Sharon, urged him to try Saratoga WarHorse, and he agreed and was extended an invitation to go through the program. On Nov. 18, he went through a session with some Vietnam vets, so they were older guys. I talked to Bob Nevins the next morning, and he said the first day Ramon went through the program he was smiling and feeling better, and he talked about his feelings a great deal at the de-briefing session. The next morning, Bob took him to the train station to go back to New York and Ramon told Bob he could not believe what had happened to him.
“He had been texting Sharon the whole time he was there and kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this; I’m feeling so much better.’ He told Bob he wanted to be the poster boy for Saratoga WarHorse, because it had changed his life so dramatically. It’s such a big boost for WarHorse. Ramon is doing well following the trauma of such a life-altering event. Ramon said, ‘I’ve been around horses all my life. I know horses. But I’ve never had the kind of experience as when that horse turned around and looked me in the eye and followed me.'”
For Dominguez, who has been in love with horses his entire life, this was a different type of bonding that gave him a tremendous sense of accomplishment. This was not the exhilaration of a head-and-head stretch duel or leading a horse into the winner’s circle. This was an awakening that was more about the horse itself than a victory on the racetrack.
“It was very different from anything I’ve ever done with horses before,” Dominguez said. “It was a very positive experience for sure. My wife and I were in Saratoga and she met one of the people involved in the program. They were talking and asked me if I wanted to do it. I thought it would be very exciting. I went there with no expectations. I knew it would be something different than riding racehorses, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the bonding and the connection with the horse that you experience. Regardless of your experience in horse racing, whether as a trainer or a jockey, this is something totally different that was very very exciting for me to have done it. I can say the same thing for the veterans that were there. We all had a great time.
“It was something that was touching and one of those things people have to experience in order to really appreciate just how wonderful it is. I can’t emphasize enough what a positive experience it was. Horses are wonderful animals that I absolutely love and to get to interact with them on a different level was very special — from being in the round pen with them to having them follow you around. It gave you a sense of accomplishment to be able to connect with the horses and have them listen to you and respond to you, and basically follow you around like a dog. It was a beautiful thing to experience.”
Nevins added, “Ramon said to me, ‘I can’t tell you what you’ve done for me. If I can do anything for you; if you want me to talk to anybody or use my picture I’ll be glad to help.’ There’s a real parallel between a jockey and a soldier. Every time that gate opens you don’t know if you’re going to make it around the track. That’s what happens with the soldier. It keeps playing on your mind over and over again. ‘Is my luck going to run out?’ When you’re young and dumb you don’t think of those things. But after you’ve been wounded in combat or injured on the racetrack, it really makes it a lot harder. The horses, the jockeys, and the veterans all have one thing in common. Just because their career ends it doesn’t mean their life is over. They just have to find a new purpose.'”
Nevins said it costs him $2,500 to put a veteran through the program, but that is cheap compared to the millions it costs taxpayers to put them on disability through the VA (Veterans Administration). So far, there have been close to 100 veterans who have participated in the program and the success rate has been 100 percent.
That success rate is due in good part to the generosity of people in the racing industry and corporate people wanting to do something meaningful and with purpose on a more immediate level, rather than simply writing checks out to a particular charity. During the Sararoga meet, trainer Bill Mott and his wife Tina put on a dinner for the veterans at the conclusion of the program.
Nevins says the medication and psychotherapy doesn’t work and the government knows it doesn’t work, which is the reason why the VA has such a high failure rate. He finds it frustrating that they don’t look outside the box. The American Legion recently completed a two-year study that came to the same conclusion as Nevins.
“The vets feel like throwaways and complain they’re being medicated to death,” Nevins said. “They know talk therapy doesn’t work because there’s no way to release that oxytocin through verbal conversations. It’s got to be an emotional jolt. We don’t tell the veterans any of that. We just teach them the horse’s language and the horse bonds with them and they get this rush. Their reaction is always the same – “I don’t know what happened.'”
“We tell them we don’t know what happened either. They go back to their families, and their wives call and thank us, or psychiatrists call and ask, ‘How did you do that? I’ve had this kid for two years and I haven’t been able to break through.’ So were going to just keep doing what we do and let the government catch up to us. We pay for everything, because if you give them an excuse not to leave their house they’ll take it. We tell them we have people in the Thoroughbred industry that have already paid for their plane ticket and their hotel. All they have to do is show up. And that’s why it works.”
One of the reasons Nevins has been able to fund the program is that the facility he uses is owned by his attorney, and when he saw what Nevins was attempting to accomplish he turned the place over to him. That was how he was able to keep operating for the first two years. Once the money ran out he began to look elsewhere.
As for the horses, the more Saratoga WarHorse grows the more horses will be needed. And the more horses are needed, the more horses they can rescue.
Ramon Dominguez has come to terms with his fate and his life and has broken through that barrier of denial he built following his injury.
“At this point in my life I’m doing OK,” he said. “I’m very happy and looking forward to the future.”