Online Extra

Healing Horses

September 28, 2011

It was a big – but rewarding – responsibility to write a story for the October America’s Horse magazine about a program that uses horses to help returning military members with physical and emotional wounds.

By Andrea Caudill

On the grounds of the Air Force Academy. James Emmert photo.

Whenever I have one of Those Days – the busy, stress-headache-inducing ones – my favorite remedy is heading to the barn. The specific therapy changes – maybe a good ride, barn chores or just watching the horses graze – but all result in my slowing down physically and mentally, letting myself relax, laugh and lighten my heart.

I think most horse people can attest to that feeling, and that is the basis for my story, “Checking Fences,” the cover story of the October 2011 America’s Horse magazine. The story is about the U.S. Air Force Academy Equestrian Center’s “Warrior Wellness” program, which uses horses to help military personnel heal from mental and physical wounds resulting from their service. It serves a therapeutic purpose for both the soldiers and their families, and also offers vocational training for those desiring a new career.

The Colorado Springs-based Equestrian Center is an entirely self-sufficient operation headed by Billy Jack Barrett, with the able assistance of Robert Templin and Jeanne Springer and a handful of other part-time employees.

I was honored to be able to write this story to highlight people who are making a difference. My personal experience with military service is limited – my father served in the Air Force – but my respect for those who serve is not. What I found when I arrived at the Equestrian Center was a small group of people focused on giving back to people who have given so much.

I had visited with Billy Jack before, as we share a common interest of racing American Quarter Horses, and I knew he and his wife spent their lifetimes making the world a better place by raising a group of biological and adopted children. It was a privilege to meet him in person. With an easy smile and the doff of his hat, he was the very picture of a gentleman cowboy. Jeanne Springer is a kind, soft-spoken women with a lifetime of experience in the military and a close knowledge of what those families go through. Robert Templin is a get-things-done kind of guy with a ready smile and a desire to give back.

Become an AQHA member to enjoy more heart-warming stories like this in America’s Horse, the official AQHA member publication. We love to tell stories about the talents and diversity of the American Quarter Horse – and also provide health and training tips that make your time with your horse more enjoyable.

Cover boy Jacob Legendre is one of the soldiers who has gone through the program and has gone through two decades of (to my eyes) nearly unimaginable hell in serving his country. I doubt he’d label himself as such, but I will say unequivocally that Jacob is a hero. As he told his story, I was struck by his bravery – his courage not only as a soldier, but also telling his story to a stranger without shying from the painful parts. When he talked about his military career, the surgeries and the pain he has endured, his voice was businesslike and matter-of-fact. When he talked about the friends and family he has lost, his voice became gruff and strained. When he talked about working with the horses, and when he talked about his son, his voice lightened and slowed down. That is the power the horses have to help, to be that calming presence we horse people know so well.

I think Jacob would be the first to say that he’s not looking for attention; his is one of countless tales of courage from our military members, and he told his story in an effort to help the people and program that have helped him. No longer able to fight on the battlefield, it seems he has reformed his personal mission to helping his fellow soldiers heal. He believes in the program and actively recruits others into it. Above all, despite all the things he has seen and done, and all the sacrifices he has made, he continues to give back.

Billy Jack Barrett, left, visits with AQHA's Andrea Caudill. James Emmert photo.

It was appropriate that most of the interviews for this story were conducted on horseback, checking fences. We threw a leg over a few good American Quarter Horses and headed out through the spectacular Colorado mountains to ride fences and talk about the program. It was obvious that all of these people care to the bone, and they all share a sense of purpose and a desire to serve. It is inspiring and humbling, all at the same time.

I was very moved by their story and wrote it in my head as I headed home, driving south on Interstate 25. When I got back to the office, I turned the story into reality. Transcribing hours of interviews, then writing and reading the story, I cried several times for the sacrifice and the strength and the hope for good this program represents. I doubt I’ll be the only one to do so.

If you have a comment, feel free to email me at acaudill@aqha.org, or post below. I’ll make sure that any applicable comments are forwarded to the folks involved.

In the meantime, there aren’t words in the world that can show adequate appreciation for the sacrifice of Jacob, of other military members who have served or are currently serving, and their families. To all of you, I simply say: Thank you.