After 30 years of military service that included two overseas deployments, Gail Watts returned to civilian life – an unfamiliar, less regimented life – and discovered she needed help getting back to who she was.
Strong and willing in the military, Watts engaged civilian life with an array of new emotions that left her tired and miffed. When Veterans Affairs doctors and medications failed to help, she agreed in 2015 to participate in a nascent therapy program called Saratoga WarHorse, a nonprofit venture established in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The free program uses rescued or retired Thoroughbreds – most of whom can no longer be ridden – to help military veterans, emergency personnel and other first responders try to overcome the varied effects of post-traumatic stress and other action-driven ills. Amid a growing trend in which humans were finding ways to save and retrain retired racehorses, now the horses were working to aid humans.
“I was skeptical, and I really didn’t want to do it,” Watts recalls. “I thought, ‘How can a horse help me?’ But then I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ ”
In the end, it was a second-chance Thoroughbred who came to her rescue.
“That program, that horse brought about a nonverbal therapeutic change for me,” says Watts, now the Baltimore County director of corrections. “I can’t explain how a horse could get me to a point where I believed it said to me, ‘It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.’
“I still replay the video of my program, and I still get emotional when I watch one part of the interaction. I’m emotional now,” she says, her voice breaking. “The horse took its head and wrapped it around my body, like it was hugging me. And that’s when I had my breakthrough.”
A way back
Suzanne Berger, Baltimore County deputy director of human resources and equine program manager, oversees the programs – including Saratoga WarHorse – at the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville. She says she often hears questions similar to the one Watts asked.
WarHorse executive director Allison Cherkosly has heard them too.
“People often wonder how a three-day experience and 30 minutes with a horse in a round pen can substantially help veterans who have been experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress for years, and even decades,” Cherkosly says. “Well, each veteran who comes to us for help does so because they have experienced a traumatic event – fire fights, an IED going off, people getting shot next to them – which has long-lasting negative effects, such as sleeplessness, nightmares and trouble coping with everyday life.
“When veterans ask how we can help them in three days to overcome issues they have been dealing with for years, we pose the question, ‘How long did the traumatic event last that caused you to call us?’ The answer is usually ‘seconds’ to ‘minutes.’ Since a traumatic event can have a profound negative effect, why is it so hard to believe that a three-day Saratoga WarHorse experience can have a positive effect of a similar magnitude?”
Watts says she got her life back through “an experience I can’t put into words, really.” She adds, “I really didn’t know anything about horses. But to really learn about what those horses had been through, what their careers had been like – at the racetracks or other places – I just felt after I learned about them, about their lives, I could relate.
“It was almost as if I could understand what he was going through, and he understood what I was going through. I had compassion for the horse, and he had compassion for me.”
When Watts got back to Maryland, she couldn’t wait to tell other veterans about the program. She knew of their sleeping disorders, marriage issues, children issues. She told them, “You’ve got to go through this program.”
Since Watts took part in Saratoga WarHorse, approximately 40 other Baltimore County police, corrections and fire employees have been through it. Berger says that while most of them had no prior horse experience, the feedback from all attendees has been positive and uplifting.
“I can pinpoint to the moment when that horse came to me, and I felt I was worth it,” says one veteran. “He had no judgment. His eyes were ever so shiny, and he gave me a chance. . . Today, I am ready to give life a chance.”
And then there was another, who wrote to his fellow vets: “If you are tired of the darkness and tired of the long sleepless nights . . . go to saratogawarhorse.com. I can’t really explain what exactly happens when you have your ‘connection’ with one of these beautiful animals . . . But I left a lot of baggage in that pen . . . I hope you find the peace that was gifted to me.”
Berger says everyone has a hard time “telling you how it works, but it works.”
Maybe Winston Churchill was right: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man [and woman].”
Giving a leg up
Nine Thoroughbreds unable to be raced or ridden graze on rolling hills behind two restored barns at the park’s Kevin Kamenetz Equine Center, named for the Baltimore County executive who died May 10 amid a primary bid for governor. The horses await their next assignment with Saratoga WarHorse, which has sites in New York, Aiken, S.C., and, as of this summer, Maryland.
The Kamenetz center, which opened late in May on land that was once the Thoroughbred nursery Rolling Mill Farm, expands the program’s capacity substantially, its horse-country location near a major airport within reach of those seeking its services. And its presence helps Maryland rescue operations with horses looking for work.
To that aim, the center’s facility and programs draw support from Beyond the Wire, the Maryland Thoroughbred industry’s retirement arm; The Foxie G Foundation, a retirement, rehoming and rehab farm; Sagamore Farm, a historic racing operation that provides homes for all of its horses for life or until another home can be found for them; and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which has donated $13,333 to the center.
Support has also come in other forms. The Manor Equine Hospital has donated veterinary services for the herd; Cigna Health Care has come forward with a significant financial contribution, and familiar racehorse shipper Dale Novak has donated transportation services.
Fully stocked, the restored horse farm will house up to 18 horses in spacious, 12-by-12 and 14-by-14-foot stalls in two barns on the 149-acre site. Twenty-two acres of fields are fenced, with another 17 acres to be done.
The sun on this day gleams off the horses’ backs as they lift their heads with interest when human visitors approach. Several, including Rift, begin walking toward the wooden fence.
In his short time at the equine center, Rift has become a star. It’s easy to see why. The 10-year-old Not For Love offspring, who earned $94,215 during his racing career, radiates a friendly disposition. He can no longer be ridden due to an inoperable large chip and associated arthritis in a front ankle. But he likes to be petted and rubbed, and his sympathetic nature immediately instills a corresponding warmth in new acquaintances.
Turn the Tables, a 13-year-old mare, occupies an adjacent field. Bred by Nancy Leonard, the El Corredor offspring out of Power Play was a $100,000 sales yearling, didn’t place in her two races, and was sold for $18,000 carrying her first foal, by Master Command, at Keeneland in 2009. Seven years later, Turn the Tables was in a kill pen in Pennsylvania awaiting transport to a Mexico slaughterhouse.
That’s when Foxie G Foundation owner Laurie Calhoun received a call. With assistance from Beyond the Wire and Leonard, who helped with expenses, Turn the Tables was rescued.
All the horses here have come from Foxie G or Sagamore Farm and have similar stories of injury, disappointment, birth defects, mistreatment and/or near-death experiences. They are not unlike the veterans they are here to help.
“There are a lot of parallels,” says Cherkosly, an Afghanistan vet. “They are both trained very rigorously for a specific job – horses to run fast and win races, veterans to kill the enemy. Then one day neither of them have that. With us, the horses and the veterans are looking to their futures.”
A major reason these specific horses have been selected is their curiosity in humans. But there are more requirements. In fact, WarHorse has a protocol for the horses it uses.
Like the humans they serve, the Thoroughbreds here seek a new way of life.
“Initially, people were concerned when they retired Thoroughbreds because they are high energy,” says Calhoun. “But Thoroughbreds are very social and very connected to people. At some point, they got labeled un-useful. People are now realizing that’s not true. Thoroughbreds can give a lot back.”
In finding trust, the Ag Center Thoroughbreds help restore a veteran’s ability to trust others. The horses assist EquiTeam Support Services, a southern Pennsylvania company that gives psychological support to those in need, and Baltimore County has moved to sharing the facility and the herd with other public-outreach programs. In turn, the horses enjoy human contact, a new and useful lifestyle, a peaceful environment and open spaces.
To qualify for these programs, the Thoroughbreds must be 5 to 12 years old; preferably no longer racing; comfortable barefoot, as they won’t wear shoes; 15- to 16-hands tall; sound enough to accomplish round pen maneuvers; even-tempered and responsive; acquiescent to a herd environment; content interacting with people, and good travelers.
An hour’s drive from the equine center, at the Foxie G Foundation in Union Bridge, Md., Calhoun busies herself with a new arrival from Beyond the Wire. Five Foxie G retirees moved to the Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park; Another Badge is about to join them.
The 5-year-old mare ran 21 times and earned $69,019 before a left-hock infection forced retirement. Difficult to ride at the racetracks, she’s become kind and friendly in retirement.
“The horses are very social,” says Calhoun, who owns The Foxie G Foundation with husband Jerry. “A lot of them are about being out in the field with their [equine] friends. Others, like the ones I’m sending to the programs at the equine center, want to be with people. They’re used to human contact, and if I could have a wish it would be that every one of them could have their own person. They want that contact.”
Outside Maryland, the WarHorse program uses only Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-approved farms for its horses. But here, it also uses at least one horse from Sagamore Farm – Go Hard, an unraced Candy Ride (Arg) offspring. Sagamore, not far from the center, also provides horses for other programs and projects there.
“Our horses have homes for life at Sagamore,” says Jocelyn Brooks, chief of staff at Sagamore Racing. “Some of them race and are retired, others never raced. But they’ll all be here until we can find them a home, and if we can’t, they’ll just stay. The WarHorse program and others at the center offer an opportunity for some of our horses to be useful.”
Once the horses meet the Saratoga WarHorse basic protocol, they receive further evaluation and an independent veterinarian’s examination. If accepted to the program, the horse works one day out of a three-day session.
The session begins with arrival of the veterans and a get-acquainted dinner. On Day 2, in a classroom setting, participants learn more about the program and the life of their equine partner. In the afternoon, the Thoroughbreds enter their workplace, an enclosed ring: The instructed veteran takes a long lead, walks behind the horse and snaps the lead so the horse moves forward while a program supervisor provides support from outside the ring. At some point, the veteran stops urging the horse forward and invites the horse to interact.
Typically, the horse will turn its head to look at the veteran, who extends both hands and waits. When the curious horse approaches, the potential takes place for a connection between horse and human. These interactions can spark connections that result in life-changing, long-lasting breakthroughs.
On Day 3, the veterans and the WarHorse staff meet for breakfast and share thoughts and goodbyes before returning home.
Like Calhoun, Beyond the Wire program director Jessica Hammond sees these programs as a rare way for under-utilized Thoroughbreds to perform a valuable service.
“Most of the horses we see are ride-able,” Hammond says. “They’re re-homed for riding or hunting. Now, this is another option for a horse with special needs. A place to go. A job to do.”
With her retirees going off to work, Calhoun says she will be able to take in others she might not have had room for.
“We don’t have a formal contract, just an understanding,” Calhoun says. “We are working together. We supply all the horses for the program and they take care of all of their expenses while they are in service there. That means so much. Just for them to cover all the costs. It frees up spots here for other horses to come into our farm.”
In six months, she speculates, she can re-home three to six other horses.
“It’s what I specialize in,” she says. “I’m home to horses with injuries that need rehabbing from arthritis to chips in knees to broken sesamoids. Horses that need care for six to nine months.”
Some heal and return to the racetrack; some can’t go back to the track, but they get retrained and often adopted. Certain rescues eventually get adopted too; others stay at Foxie G as retirees.
Berger hopes the equine center programs she oversees will bring attention to these horses and lead to more adoptions. Cherkosly, the WarHorse executive, says horses who participate in the program become “happier, healthier and more adoptable.”
To protect the interests of horse and human, WarHorse participants must wait six months before adopting a program partner.
“Many of the veterans who go through the program have never had anything to do with a horse prior to going through the program,” Berger says. “They may form an attachment to their horse, but they don’t know what it means to own a horse, what facilities they need, how to care for it. Over those six months, if they are serious about it, it gives them a chance to find out the things they need to know and determine whether they can handle the commitment.”
Calhoun says program videos’ spoken tales evince the moving interactions between veterans and horses.
“I am always surprised, and yet I shouldn’t be,” she says, “I know if I’m having a bad day and one walks up and
tucks his head under my arm, it’s an ‘Oh my God’ feeling. It just restores you.”
And the horses.
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