Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Winning the Trust of a Warhorse

Horses are helping vets regain their lives.

Warriors on horseback have ravaged their neighbors for millennia, but today warhorses and soldiers are joined in a new mission: healing the invisible wounds of war.

The Saratoga Warhorse Project was the inspiration of Bob Nevins, a former chopper pilot in Vietnam who personally found his own peace when he bonded with a retired race horse, accepted its unconditional trust, and began to believe in himself again.

Nevins had flown more than 500 missions in an unarmed medevac helicopter for the 101st Airborne before the day in 1971 when his chopper was blown out of the air by a rocket-propelled grenade that killed two of his four crewmates instantly and sent the craft spinning 150 feet to the ground in a fireball.

“We set the jungle on fire,” he says. “I opened my eyes and was kind of wondering why I was not dead.”

Nevins managed to get the two remaining crewmen out of the wreckage and half-carried, half-dragged them to safety. Then with the help of soldiers on patrol in the area, they managed to hold off the Viet Cong until new medevac choppers could fly in and extricate them.

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After weeks recovering in a burn unit, he went back to action, but the emotional scars never left him.

“I lived for years with my near-death experience, with what I thought was going to be my last desperate moment,” says Nevins. “And the next closest experience I had was with the horse. I got unconditional acceptance from that horse, and that triggered a change in my brain. The root cause of everything we do is fear, but the fear and anxiety and human emotions dissolve. You have control over those feelings now.”

In fact, it changed his life. In 2011, Nevins retired after 24 years as an airline captain so that he could begin sharing his horse-bonding experience with other vets on his farm near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home of the famed Saratoga Race Track.

So far, he has recruited eight retired race horses with uncertain futures, and he has brought in more than 100 vets for three-day sessions to work with the horses. The average travel and lodging cost for a visit is about $2,500, but Nevins and the Saratoga Warhorse Foundation pay the entire tab.

“We won’t take money from them,” says Nevins. “All I have to do is qualify them. And I do that by talking with them, then asking how they’re sleeping at night. When the response is, ‘Are you frigging kidding me? I haven’t slept in five years!’ I know I’ve got my guy.”

One of the key symptoms of PTSD is the hyper-tension and the hyper-anxiety that make it difficult to sleep at night. Another is the emotional numbness that results from being awash in adrenaline during unrelenting combat, an experience Nevins describes as “being like a firefighter going into the World Trade Center every day.”

Bonding with a horse helps blocked emotions to flow, Nevins is finding.

But it’s a difficult task because horses are flight animals, programmed to flee from any perceived threat, while man is a predator. That means the vet has to win the horse’s trust.

Sessions start on a Monday morning with an expert in horse behavior telling the vets how to interpret a horse’s non-verbal language, things like a horse cocking an ear toward the vet or staring directly at him or trotting around a pen while demonstrating licking or chewing behavior.   

New research is also finding that horses understand humans better than almost any other animal, picking up on the subtlest of body or eye movements.

In a case study published this year in the peer-reviewed journal “Advances in Mind-Body Medicine,” Nevins described how the vet and the horse interact in a 50-foot round pen.

The vet first let the horse run in circles around the pen, then learned to change its direction by blocking the horse’s path with his body and tossing a line out in front of the horse. As they continued to work together, he also acknowledged the horse as it conveyed its body signals of negotiation: licking and chewing, lowering its head and staring at him with both eyes.

Finally, the vet invited the horse to come in to him by taking his eyes off the horse, stepping ahead and turning his shoulder in a passive manner. As the horse came in and dropped its head, the vet rubbed the space between its eyes, a blind spot and a vulnerable area for a horse.

With that trust established, the vet was able to walk in semicircles and figures of eight, and the horse followed submissively behind him.

That moment can be life-changing, according to Nathan Fahlin of Duluth, Minn., who deployed to Iraq for 15 months in 2006-07 with the Minnesota National Guard. “When you inherently distrust everyone, you don’t know what to think when that horse trusts you,” he says. “It’s a unique moment, and it kind of gave me my life back again.”

Constant combat left Fahlin feeling numb after he returned home, and it made him withdraw from people. “Callousness is best way to describe it,” he told me. “All your nerve endings have been exposed for so long that you shut down in a lot of ways.”

But after gaining the trust of a warhorse a year ago, he’s been allowing himself to return to some of the hobbies and activities that he had enjoyed before he deployed. In particular, he’s been trekking down to the Duluth YMCA for some pick-up basketball games with his friends.

“And I’ve been sleeping through the night, unless there’s a sudden noise like a garbage truck picking up trash,” he says. “It’s a work in progress, but I’m a lot better than I was three years ago.”

For more information about the Saratoga Warhorse project, visit its web site: http://saratogawarhorse.com/

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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