Horses and Healing: Operation Wild Horse

Illinois-based program unites wild horses and veterans

In the serene countryside of northern Illinois, not even 1.5 hours from Chicago, sits an equestrian center with an important mission -- one that is curating the healing of veterans through close-knit bonds made with Mustangs.

Operation Wild Horse (OWH) is a program of Veterans R&R, providing “a safe community where veterans, active-duty military, and families can build a significant Mustang/human bond that allows barriers to fall, communication to enhance, and trust to form.” Consisting of a three-person team -- the experienced Mustang trainer, veteran coordinator, and the Mustangs themselves -- the Operation Wild Horse curriculum assists with Military service-related challenges including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, hyper-vigilance, transition and reintegration issues, deployment, depression, anxiety and much more.

Wild horses of every color were nestled behind stalls with fans, content with their hay and awaiting lessons with their veteran. The American flag, POW-MIA and others representing our US. Armed Forces were hanging proudly in the indoor arena. Veterans and their family members visited out front, surrounding a picnic table.

“All of our horses are BLM Mustangs, and we have two BLM burros,” said dressage rider/trainer and program director for Operation Wild Horse, Patti Gruber, in an interview with Valley Vet Supply. “We use the principles of dressage and Western dressage in teaching all of our veterans how to ride. Dressage is actually the oldest form of military riding, so it fits in very well. We have a partnership with the Western Dressage Association of America, which we're very proud of, and we teach mainly under those principles.”

Operation Wild Horse: The Beginning

When Patti acquired a 7-year-old unbroke Mustang stallion, Padre’, she “was taken on a journey with him that I could have never imagined going on,” she recalled. “He's the first and only wild horse to qualify and compete at Dressage at Devon , where he was named Reserve Grand Champion Stallion. Overall, he's the only Mustang to ever hold a national ranking with the United States Dressage Federation for dressage sport horse breeding stallion.

Padre’s success as an esteemed dressage horse landed him features in horse magazines, children’s and adult books, and even a Breyer horse model. He was also an ambassador for the BLM wild horse movement.

“We traveled throughout the country and just seeing the reactions that people had to Mustangs and opening their eyes, I knew I wanted to do something to give back. I approached Jimmy Welch, who's the president and founder of Veterans R and R and said, ‘Hey, I'd love to work with veterans and horses.’”

Operation Wild Horse: The Bond

Wild horses and veterans help and learn from each other.

Patti explained how, saying, “The Mustangs will really mirror the behavior of anybody who comes in here. So, if somebody comes in and they have a very big personality, it's going to actually scare off the horses, and they're going to go to a different end of the arena and not necessarily want to have anything to do with them. So, the veterans and active-duty military members get to see how their behavior actually affects others. If they learn how to lower their alarm system and just take a big, deep breath and be in the moment, the Mustangs will actually start coming up to them, acknowledging them and wanting things to do with them.”

Mustangs Helping VETERANS Helping Mustangs

Horses have a way of helping humans through challenging times. Thus, the wild horses of Operation Wild Horse play an important role in supporting their veterans.

“We have quite a few veterans who are married. If they're having a rough day, their spouse or significant other will actually say, ‘Hey, you need to go out to the barn, and you need to go see your horse. We have had veterans tell us the second that they drive through our front gates, they just feel like a weight is being lifted off of them because they have to come here and really be in the moment. Nothing that's going on in the rest of the world matters when they're here.”

And it's not just about the horses. Like any good barn environment, it's also about the camaraderie with others. “They're able to be around like-minded people who understand the challenges that they have from also being in the military,” she continued.

The difference is noticeable, and the connectivity from wild horse to veteran is extraordinary.

“We've had so many spouses and significant others come back to us and say, we don't know what's happening here. We just know that when they come home, they're in a better mood and they've got great stories to tell. These Mustangs are just amazing. And if somebody is coming in and having a bad day, these Mustangs see it, and they will come up to the fence and they will put their heads down. And you can just tell the Mustangs are being like, ‘Hey, I know it's been rough, but I'm here for you.’ And it's just truly magical to see that happen,” Patti said.

In addition to caring for their mustangs, Patti also takes in other rehabilitation horses from her veterinarian. She well knows the level of care that is needed and has a close eye for helping manage and treat common horse health conditions, such as laminitis. Having reliable access to horse health needs is important both for her rehab horses, and Operation Wild Horse.

“For me, doing the rehab work for our veterinarian and being able to get horses in, and rehab the mustangs that we've gotten out of bad situations, I've shopped around everywhere. Having a nonprofit, a lot of stuff boils down to the price. Every time I've ever needed anything, Valley Vet has had it in stock. It gets to me quickly, and I've never had any issues with not being able to get what I need, when I need it. Valley Vet has been my go-to for a long time -- I can get the products I want, when I want them. It's kind of a one-stop shop.”

The Driving Force Behind Operation Wild Horse

“When I started this program and came up with the idea, it was really to give back and to share my love of Mustangs with other people. And truly for me, I would never have been able to go on the journey that I've been on with Mustangs if it weren't for the men and women of our military -- the sacrifices that they make and that they're willing to make every day for us to live in the greatest country in the world. It is really my driving force in giving back,” said Patti.

Patti’s two grandfathers served in World War II, one in the Navy and one with the Marines. She sometimes sees her grandfathers in veterans coming through their barn doors.

“My grandfathers would be so proud of this program and the people that we're helping, and there are people that I could have seen them being really good friends with. Just seeing everybody who comes through here and the difference that it makes in their lives -- it's just so rewarding. I could spend my whole entire life being a dressage or a Western dressage trainer and make a difference to the people that I'm teaching, but making a difference to the people that allowed me to have this life is just the most rewarding thing I think I could ever do.”

Valley Vet Supply is proud to showcase its customers’ passion and dedication to their industry. Stay tuned for the next article of this series, as we detail the career of wild horse, Padre’, and finding confidence as a rider taking on new challenges -- like he and Patti did at Dressage at Devon, where he was named Reserve Grand Champion Stallion.

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