We stepped into the stables and rounded the corner. Inside the first stall stood Jack, a magnificent brown Percheron that had spent most of his 16 years pulling Amish carts in Pennsylvania.
Chris, the Air Force veteran who would groom and ride Jack this day, leaned into the space, whispering to Jack. The horse stepped forward, lowered his massive head and, as Chris stroked the side of Jack’s face, nuzzled into his friend.
In that instant, my eyes stung. I had to blink, remember to take a breath. What the . . ? It shocked me.
I had only met Chris about five minutes earlier. He had agreed to be the subject of a story an insurance company hired me to do on Equi-Vets, an equine-therapy program in Pungo.
I didn’t know Chris’ own story yet, why he was drawn to Equi-Vets last year or what communing with horses did for him.
But in that first moment, when my throat reflexively tightened to dam in my professional composure, the truth was clear.
Like the members of a military unit, this beautiful, powerful beast had Chris’ back. And Chris very much had his.
Chris spent the next hour walking, talking, trotting and running with Jack inside a riding arena and across some of the 92 acres off Heritage Park Drive on which Equi-Vets, and the more populated Equi-Kids program, operates.
In a compulsive minute toward the end, Jack even dashed off toward the stables, evidently spooked by a noise or some potential danger. However, Chris rode so steadily during Jack’s flight, it appeared he had asked his mount to let it out, or however Horse Whisperers say “step on it!”
Only after Jack eased to a halt near the barn and we caught up in a golf cart did we learn that Jack had acted alone in his hair-raising jaunt. But Chris, who’d grown up riding horses, steered with the calm assurance of a man who knew far greater peril, transferring that confidence through his hands and legs and voice to his best friend for the day.
I haven’t ridden a horse. An elephant, yes. Not a horse. Still, it takes zero horse sense to see how and why equine therapy is a wondrous tool for physical and emotional rehabilitation. Horse people have long known this. They could cluck with condescension at my wide-eyed, “Wow, horses are awesome,” announcement, as if I’d uncovered a huge discovery. But to the credit of instructors Susan and Liz, they nodded and said, “Yep. Aren’t they great?”
Equi-Vets, yeah that’s great, too. Wounded veterans ride free of charge, although if they can’t or don’t want to ride, they can groom, walk with and talk with the horses, whatever works.
There is incredible power in any and all of it. The veterans are broken, in ways inside and out that many of us cannot fathom. Chris’ personal story of his year in Afghanistan leading engineers trying to build infrastructure is beyond haunting.
He told me he has found conversation with counselors has its place and its purpose.
But one gentle eyeful, let alone one hour, of him loving a noble horse, sharing with it in soft word and silent thought secrets he shares with no human, speaks a much different language of healing.
For some, it catches the breath. For others, it completes a fractured soul.
(Equi-Vets can be reached at 757-721-7350)
(Photo courtesy jasonhirschfeld.com)