Bob Nevins isn’t a therapist, psychologist, or mental health professional of any kind, nor is he a horse expert. But, that hasn’t stopped him from helping vets who suffer from post-traumatic stress by using horses. Wait, what?
Saratoga WarHorse, a nonprofit organization, connects veterans from across the country with physiological wounds to retired thoroughbred horses.
Bob, the organization’s founder, served in Vietnam as a medevac pilot with the 101st Airborne Division, and in 2011 he took it upon himself to find alternative methods to help veterans heal from trauma that didn’t involve “sitting on a couch.”
Bob first tried what he now calls the “procedure” at a friend’s house. He was astonished by the impact, and how quickly it worked.“The horse did everything it was expected to do, and it bonded with me exactly the way the procedure describes,” he says.
“I had this experience with a horse that was extremely powerful emotionally, and that gave me an idea to help fellow veterans that are dealing with post-traumatic stress.”
From there, he connected with an equine instructor, and together they started what is now a 3-day, all-inclusive program at either their Saratoga Springs, N.Y, or Aiken, S.C. locations.
“It doesn’t matter whether your buddy died in your arms in Vietnam, you were blown up in a Humvee in Iraq, or you were sexually assaulted at your duty station, trauma is trauma,” says Bob.
Vets that come tend to have a VA disability rating of at least 70 percent, and they usually have had some kind of mental health counseling. “They call us because they want to put the end to the nightmares, and it doesn’t have to take five years of talking about it to help repair some of the damage,” he says.
There is some scientific credence to his program as it’s rooted in polyvagel theory, but Bob says what happens in the round-pen is nothing short of a miracle. Instinctively, the horse recognizes the nonverbal language the veteran is using. The horse then responds, in their own way, asking if they would be safe.“The horse wants to know if they join the herd, that they’ll be protected,” says Bob
“This is about transcending the language barrier in nature, which is the catalyst for resetting those emotional circuit breakers in the veteran.”
The trust that is created has a lasting impact on those who’ve gone through the experience, but many that come are skeptical, at first. Some have questioned how Saratoga WarHorse can help them in a 3-day period, when they’ve been dealing with post-traumatic stress sometimes for years. But Bob says the proof is in the faces of the vets after they’ve gone through it. “I’ve had veterans tell me the next day that it has helped,” says Bob.
So far, 768 veterans have gone through the program.
“To go from knowing next to nothing about horses, to having that horse come nuzzle you for protection is very powerful,” he says. “Most of the veterans that come here are referrals from other vets that have gone through the program.”
“We let veterans do the talking for us.”