July 15 is National Celebration of the Horse Day, designed to recognize the economic, cultural and historic contributions the horse has made to the fabric of the United States.
In the Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) program at the Travis Mills Foundation, essential lessons are taught to combat veterans and first responders through the help of these gentle giants.
Warrior PATHH starts with a week-long program held on the campus of the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat that cultivates and facilitates post-traumatic growth and enables participants to transform times of deep struggle into profound strength and growth. After the initiation week, the program continues virtually for 90 days.
The program is not taught by clinicians, but fellow combat veterans and first responders – PATHH Guides – who have completed the program themselves.
During one afternoon of the program, Guides and participants visit Pure Country Stables in nearby Mt. Vernon, Maine, to work with horses.
“We’re not asking them to look back in this module,” said PATHH Guide Ray Edgar, adding that looking back and disclosure is an emotional, but vital component to the program that has already happened when students visit the horse barn.
“Working with the horses is a kind of turning point in their training where they start to look forward and begin to write their new story.”
Ray said PATHH students come into this module pretty worn out.
“I would say it’s the beginning of understanding the value of being connected to themselves and connected to someone else,” Ray said. “It’s also prepping them to go home to be connected to people around them, which is critical for growth.”
Janet McIver owns Pure Country Stables and helps facilitate the module with the Guides and a small circle of volunteers.
Formerly, Janet welcomed participants from the Foundation’s Family Program to meet and interact with the stable’s resident horses. However, as a full-time oncology nurse, Janet found it difficult to also provide programs for families, which generally occur three weeks a month.
“I called Kelly (Roseberry, COO) crying to say that I couldn’t do it anymore,” Janet said. “I still want to cry when I think about it.”
Two years later, the opportunity arose for Janet to work with PATHH participants one afternoon a month, and she gladly accepted.
“Watching the students evolve from when they first walk in to when they leave is amazing,” she said. “For some students the experience is extremely profound. The next day I go back to work and I’m a totally different person myself.”
“The program is therapeutic for us too,” she added.
Warrior PATHH is offered at nine other locations throughout the U.S., including at the Travis Mills Foundation, and all programs include an equine module.
“Horses demand authenticity,” Ray said. “We’re trying to teach PATHH students the value of being who they really are. If you’re not authentic, a horse isn’t going to connect with you; and if you’re not authentic in your relationships, you’re not going to connect with people.”
This module, Ray added, is also about control.
“Many of the participants are used to trying to control things,” he said.
Speaking from his own experience as a PATHH student at the Travis Mills Foundation in 2019, Ray said he was inclined to try to take control of the horse because of his military background.
“I was used to telling people to do something and it got done,” he said. “That’s different than connection. As soon as a student starts trying to pull a horse, that horse isn’t going anywhere.”
Janet said during a class this spring, a student went to lead a horse with the rope very tight around the horse’s chin.
“He had her tight as he could,” Janet said. “I said to him, ‘If I took you for a walk, would you want me to hold you tight up by your neck or to gently take you by the hand and go?’”
Janet said many lessons are learned in this PATHH module.
“Some people don’t realize how much pressure they put on others simply by their presence,” she added.
This exercise helped Ray learn more about his personal relationships, especially with his wife, whom he often tried to assert dominance with before attending PATHH.
The module also includes time for grooming. Sometimes, students don’t have any experience with horses and are afraid at first. Grooming allows them to overcome their fears and get close to the horse, therefore better connecting with the animal.
“It also builds the confidence of the student,” Janet added.
Parting With the Horses
At the end of the module, Janet and her volunteers talk to the students about what they observed among their interactions with the horses.
“It can be pretty emotional,” she said.
Ray said the PATHH population – combat veterans and first responders – often struggle to accept praise.
“We tend to beat ourselves up to perform to the highest standard we possibly can,” he said. “As a result, we miss the successes along the way.”
At the end of the afternoon, Janet has a message she reads to participants:
You are the only one in charge of your destiny. Unfair things may happen to you, unfortunate times may come to you, but you always get to choose how you respond. You can live in frustration and bitterness, or you can be the bigger person and just play the hell out of the cards you are dealt. Because the truth is, in this world, not a single person chooses the cards they receive, but every single person chooses how to play them.”
– Walk the Earth
Ray said feedback from Janet and the team at Pure Country Stables is incredibly appreciated.
“They often pick up on things we haven’t seen,” he said. “It adds so much value.”
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first of its kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth.