War Horses for Veterans is based in Stilwell, KS and is an all-expenses paid three to five day equine bonding experience and networking program for combat veterans and first responders, co-founded by a combat veteran/horse trainer. The veterans come to the War Horses for Veterans farm, meet up with old members of their battalion, bond together and also, groom, train and ride the horses for a weekend. At the end of the visit, they network and are introduced to job opportunities to help them get settled back into civilian life. To date, the foundation has helped provide numerous jobs for the attending veterans. It’s been quite a success and the best part is that each veteran's experience is completely paid for by the foundation. Another great thing about the program is that participants can return as mentors to fellow veterans as often as they want.
WATM: When did you discover your passion for horses?
You know I think it’s always been there but, when I was in the Infantry and I got stationed in Colorado springs, I would take the guys out and we would go out some of the ranches out there. I would’ve been smart if I got into it when I was younger, that’s where all the girls were, so, that would’ve been a smarter move! (laughs) I really pursued it later in life. Honestly, I met a guy named John Lyons he’s a renowned horseman, and he was named the most trusted horseman in America at one point. He had a program that made sense and I liked him, honestly after an engagement in Fallujah in 03 I wrote a letter and sent it to my mom. Months later it finally got to him but he wrote back, "I got a spot for you and when you get back, keep your head down," and here we are.
WATM: What were the first positive signs that you had something unique that also benefited the warfighter?
You know it took years, with my background, especially in 03 and going into 04. We were getting into engagements, and then getting plucked from your brothers and a few weeks later starting a business and I’m a civilian. So, I shoved everything deep inside and just put my head down and worked, built a business. Which was my equestrians business and teaching in clinics, and then my performance horses came later. It wasn’t about until about six or eight years later when I met some unique individuals across the country, one of them was a special forces guy from Vietnam and he came up to me. I tell the story because it's the first time that I really acknowledged what the horses were really doing for me. I would take on problem horses at the end of the 3 or 4 day clinic and I would give four hour blocks. I would always fix them and direct them and build a connection with them and do a really good job. The showman comes up to me and says, you do a great job fixing those horses, but you didn’t realize that they were fixing you.
He knew I was a veteran, for some reason he picked up on something and he knew I was a combat vet, and he - I looked at him kind of funny and said you’re a vet, and I said so are you, and that was the first discussion I ever had with my service and my time in combat and never really talked about it to anybody. He kind of looked at me and said horses saved his life. A friend of his introduced him to horses and it was actually the same year that I met Woody Williams the guy from Iwo Jima, flamethrower, Marine Corps. You’ve got to know of him, he’s got the medal of honor, nicest guy in the world, met him at a deal in Virginia. I talked to him for about an hour and a half and he had a horse farm for years, and he had like, I don't know, thirty horses or whatever, talked kids, did all kinds of fun stuff, and he told me that horses changed his life. Horses helped him with his transition and saved him and they're just the most wonderful creatures ever, and I kept thinking holy crap man, there's something to this, and so a buddy of mine and I worked with worked with one time, I had him up near the horse and he said, man I haven't thought this clear since before the war.
Its amazing what you're doing, and that was kind of the culmination of how I developed war horses, was I was on six mile run, mile three and forgave myself for everything we didn't have control of, for all of the lost situations handled and everything, and that to me that's what I would say when warhorses began, you know, providing those personal professional opportunities through exceptional horsemanship, and that would be the beginning of when I thought what I'm doing for a living is what's helping me through this journey alone, and I think that would be the best way to answer that.
WATM: What stands out for you when choosing a qualified applicant for your training programs?
Willing to commit to one’s self, and willing to change and challenge one’s self. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, you could be at the bottom of the barrel. You could just be at the lowest low of your life, but if you can hear it over the phone, and you can tell it in their voices when they’re like a person that is serious about change. They’re serious about committing to themselves, and to me that’s everything, anything we do that’s worth a damn. Its not going to be easy, but it makes it that much sweeter and you can cherish it more when you achieve it and you do work through it. So, I look for candidates and individuals that are at least honest with themselves.
You’re coming here to learn a trade at the same time, you get all of these amazing benefits from working, leadership communication, decompression, anxiety, depression, manage your emotions, you're learning to let go and feel again, and at the same time, you're going to work, you're going to sweat, you're going to feel scared, you're going to feel great, you're going to be all over the friggin' place, its going to be the greatest thing ever, but you know, you're there to commit to yourself, and to the people around you. Those are the things I look for in individuals. I think there's a lot of different things you can do, and everyone's at a different point in their journey, but definitely looking for individuals that are honest and willing to commit to themselves and have passion in that. Like I said, you could be in a really rough place in their life but if you're ready, and you know you're ready and you're tired of this and ready to make a change, then good, lets roll. That makes a big difference when you select people.
WATM: Horses are powerful and intelligent creatures, how do they interact differently with veterans than civilians?
Horses are intuitive, very perceptive, I mean they’re a flight animal, so they pick up on stuff before you even realize it, from a mile away. Today, an individual had a bad experience with one a long time ago, hiding behind a mask of anxiety stress and trauma, she overcame three major fears today, and honestly within one hour. So, teaching someone that you can control a horse with your breath, breath work is crucial to anything. You know when people say you’re stressed or you’re holding your breath or anything they tell you to breathe? If you don’t breathe you die, the other thing too is when you are taught how to be present and relax and breathe. You’re literally controlling the pace and tempo the emotions and the energy of a horse based off your breath, you’re literally controlling a thousand pound animal that is incredibly powerful, but you’re doing it with the lightest touch.
You'll always hear me say less is more, always less is more, so when you learn that you can pick up the reins with two fingers and you can move the horses hips and shoulders and everything because of how you've learned to communicate and let go. That horse trusts you, and you trust that horse, its amazing what you can accomplish, and so the veterans and civilians are coming in with different perspectives. Trauma is trauma, but a civilian is not as closed off, their issues are different. Veterans are very apprehensive, closed off emotionally, shut down and the coolest thing about a horse is, you can't bullshit a horse.
If you came to me and said 'Hey man I wanna do whatever you just did, that’s awesome, that’s cool as heck' and I’m like yeah you wanna know how to do it? And he’s like "oh I don’t want to, ill never be able to do that", well, if I show you a couple of things and you learn what I teach you, I'll bet you 100 bucks I can teach you by the end of the day or at least at the end of 3 days. He’s never touched a horse yet, but the one main thing you need to learn how to do is, you need to be able to let go, and breathe, and the moment that you’re able to do that, all the chatter in your mind and everything goes away.
Veterans, you know we have different mannerisms, different humor obviously and things like that, but the horses, it’s cool to watch them, they’ll go and actually you know, take a veteran, that is maybe pretty closed off, and it’s crazy you’ll start to see them pet the horse, groom the horse, work with the horse, or you'll find a horse that's just like that individual, and that veteran might get frustrated. I have a special operations guy that did that and he was basically a mirror image of himself was in this horse. This was a pretty high end performance horse, he got super frustrated, the horse got frustrated, he got frustrated, the moment he let go, his shoulders dropped, and that horse let go. He was the biggest horse, tallest of horses, and most powerful horse we had, but it was the connection. Finally when he learned about having to let go of all that anger and frustration and everything, and it was so simple, after he did that, he was like 'is that all I needed to do?' And that horse did everything for him. That was just an amazing thing to watch, and then from there you can go on a journey together with the horse, you want adrenaline? We can get you that, you need to decompress? Let’s do that. There are so many different things you can do with a horse, and I always say a horse is one of the most underutilized tools out there.
WATM: Do you hire veterans? And what is your leadership style?
Hell yeah I do! My dream was to hire vets, and I do hire some first responders now. It’s great because there’s a lot of trust, there’s a lot of respect on both sides of that, a lot of our veterans become first responders, but yes, it’s very important because its peer to peer. Its really important that we take care of our own, and to be able to get a platform to where we’re able to hire vets to help other vets or active duty, and not just be able to help others and empower others, but healing yourself and empowering yourself by that.
My leadership style is: I’m not a micromanager. My key to success is seeing others succeed and share knowledge, the only thing I have is to be grateful for what has been provided, show gratitude, and the biggest thing I drive all the time is humility. You’ve got to be humble. Be humble and you’ll be impressed with what you’re able to accomplish, but humility is huge, so my leadership style is, the higher you go on the ladder, the more humble you need to be. I would tell the guys, I work for you, what do you need? And I’m always like, what’s your idea? I always like to delegate out, I love having the others come up, and hearing good ideas. Say for instance you worked for me and you told me your idea, and I'd say I love that idea, let’s roll, you’re in charge man, tell me what you need, and we roll with it. It’s awesome because if you don’t do that as a leader and you don’t do that as an organization or whatever it is, your company won’t survive, because you’re not grooming the individuals for success, you’re not grooming the company for success, because, in combat, if one of us goes down, you’ve got to make sure someone else can pick up where you are. My leadership style is very supportive, I’m not a micromanager, I don’t yell, never was that way, I work hard, we can play, if you’ve got stuff to take care off, take care of it, always take care of your teams family and them, so their mind is focused on what they can do and what they can do best, and put them where they can do best, and succeed and be successful.
Yeah, obviously when you get out, we need mentors. I’ve always said that all the time, I don’t care what rank you are, non commissioned, commissioned, you need mentors, and many different portions and positions in your life, so for business and transition and always look for people who have done it. Be humble enough to. I always use the phrase "I know what I don’t know, but I’m not afraid to ask," we sometimes have a mentality of asking for help is a sign of weakness and that’s just asinine because don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, because a lot of the time that vulnerability opens up the door for opportunity, it doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means, 'hey I need help. I don’t know how to do this,' and if you let people help you, let people guide you, let people mentor you, and you’ll be surprised what you're going to accomplish.
I thank veterans personally, I think it’s not for everyone, but I think veterans make good entrepreneurs, leaders in departments, once understood their culture, understanding who they are, how they function, but don't try and do it alone. Its not different from going to go clear an objective, you don't do it alone, you put a team together so you can have the best success, be humble, super humble and ask lots of questions, work hard, work your ass off and you will do well.
WATM: What’s next for you and Warhorses for Veterans?
World horse domination, haha! I figured that would be a very humble comment, but honestly, we’re working on a program we’ve launched this year called special operations horses. It’s all up and running, it has been an honor, and it’s awesome to see that moving forward, further developing the different phases of our organization, well be bringing on, honestly, you’re gonna like this, we’ve hired another guy, he’s a Marine, Afghanistan, he’s a great guy, he’s found horses and horses have changed his life.
I’ve kind of had my eye on him for about a year, he actually comes in tomorrow and starts on Monday, and so were going to be able to impact more veterans locally but nationally well be expanding, putting some things on and working on multiple phases of our program. We have a leadership and communication program that does really well, our team is phenomenal our team is getting better and better every day at teaching it. Those are lead by veterans and first responders which branches out into the corporate side so veterans and first responders can work with those companies and learn about those transitions so that they can move into that realm a little more.
Were getting ready to put a new bunkhouse on the property at the house across the street to where we can house six on site, we do have wonderful partnership with some hotels close by but the demand is growing. Being able to have more dynamic programs that are longer, and I've kind of got a secret but it encompasses high end physical wellness that usually professional athletes get but we have been working on for about two years and were really close to having this thing up and running. Eventually well get it out to the conventional horses and its an amazing opportunity. You know not just the physical and mental wellbeing but the overall understanding of why and how. How do you get better as a whole, so your whole wholistic aspect of things and its pretty high level. So, those are some of the things on the horizon. I'm just incredibly blessed and grateful for the team and the individuals that we have that are ready to take that leap and come on that journey and be apart of the family.