Monday, November 11, 2013


The Great Parallel: Horses and Veterans


I recently finished the J.D. Salinger biography, “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno. Great read, documentary style (thought that was a touch irritating). The Catcher in the Rye was the first book I truly loved. I and a 147 million others.

What struck me as particularly poignant was that Catcher was, in essence, a post-traumatic stress disorder book, a World War II book. This was before PTSD was commonly acknowledged. Forget commonly, even acknowledged is more accurate.

Salinger saw the worst of World War II. He, a counter intelligence officer and part of the 12 Infantry Regiment, landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He saw his regiment start with 3,100 soldiers and, in just a few weeks, saw that number reduced by 2,500. They got picked apart in the hedgerows of Normandy, and slaughtered in the Hurtgen Forest and at the Battle of the Bulge. If that weren’t enough, he walked into Kaufering IV, a subcamp of Dachau, to heaps and rows of emaciated and burned corpses.

Today is Veterans Day, the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day. Of course this day only further infuriated and disenfranchised Germany leading to World War II two decades later. We humans and our wars …

And, as Salinger proved, the war never ended. It never ended in his head and it has become imperative to treat the scars within the synapses of the brain. We need look no further than the horse.

Saratoga WarHorse, an organization started by Bob Nevins, who served as a medevac pilot in Vietnam and also served in the New York National Guard, pairs retired horses with war veterans suffering from PTSD.

My friend in letters, Marilyn Lane, director of thoroughbred industry relations and development, plays a fundamental role in bringing horses and soldiers together as well. (Whenever I feel down about the horse business (which, sorry to say, is far too often), I think of Marilyn and her love of the animal and racing. People like her need to be on your mind when it comes to this game.)

The parallels between the racehorses and the soldiers make them a perfect match. Horses, while in training, live cloistered lives, regimented lives. There is immense boredom and inaction followed by bursts of action so intense it breaks blood vessels in their lungs. They live under the stress of training and racing.

When a horse is allowed to retire, it takes time for it to come down. By now the horse has spent so much of its time in a stall, in a ring, in the gate, on the track. Fences everywhere.

Soldiers lead structured lives, endure long bouts of inaction followed by a few moments of terror. The stress, especially the warfare waged in city blocks of Iraq, or the uncertainty of each step they take not knowing if an IED will blow them and a plume of desert dirt 30 feet into the air.

Soldiers need to come down from that just as the horses do. They share more than they know.

Saratoga WarHorse flies in soldiers with PTSD, soldiers who have come home to suicidal thoughts and spousal abuse.

Veterans walk the horses, whisper and talk to the horses, brush them, lean on them, bond with them.

The veterans find comfort and relaxation with the horses. I know this because I saw it two summers ago. I saw them reach what looked like deep meditative states. Peaceful may be the better word.

Saratoga WarHorse doesn’t promise to fix anyone. The program doesn’t even purport to be therapy, rather it offers, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has the ability to get your life back on track again.The impact our connection process has on soldiers is not easily put into words. The experience is definitive and profound, and it will change something in you that will stay with you long after you’ve passed through the Saratoga WarHorse program.” Sounds theraputic.

The horses deserve a great life after racing, like Web Gem, a horse gifted to Saratoga WarHorse by Nick and Kim Zito. He earned $331,105 and is in training for his “new role as a Connection horse.”

Veterans Day, Armistice Day, whatever you call it, should be a sobering day of remembrance. Also, just a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving, a day to pay gratitude to those in uniform, past, present, future.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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