War Horses for Veterans is a three-day equine and networking experience. Veterans have the opportunity to bond with horses, as well as each other, in a safe and comfortable environment.
The program provides a peaceful break from everyday life challenges, giving veterans a chance to have time to clear their minds, share stories in a judgment-free space and enjoy some Midwest food.
War Horses for Veterans' commitment to veterans goes beyond a weekend experience, as they are introduced to a network of people able and willing to support them long after the uniform comes off.
“Horses are the bridge, and the veterans are their own best therapy.”
Duty. Honor. Country. From the outside, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the level of purpose, dedication and drive personified by a United States soldier. Within them is the very best of the American spirit. Defenders of freedom, protectors of the weak and ambassadors for the philanthropic heart of the nation that stands behind them back home. They’re a shining example of grit, selflessness and strength in the face of adversity. The true level of personal sacrifice is inconceivable to those of us not in uniform. Separated from the families they love, servicemen and women come to form an unequivocal bond. Together, they cope with distance and fear, relish in their own brand of humor and experience the immeasurable highs and gut-wrenching lows of the battles they wage. Above all, their brotherhood is fiercely loyal, tightly bound and held in the highest regard as a family, means for survival and sanctuary of security.
One wouldn’t doubt that soldiers eagerly await the day when their service concludes, they’re thanked by a grateful nation and welcomed home to the families that have yearned for their presence. While it’s a time of great joy, with it comes steep challenges for many veterans; challenges hard to understand for the rest of us. In combat, soldiers rely on a trained ability to disengage from their emotions. It’s a survival mechanism critical to accomplishing the mission without compromising the safety of a soldier or the unit as a whole. Combat is often accompanied by sites and experiences that can tax the limits of human emotions. The ability to disconnect from that can mean life or death during engagement. It’s this long-term suppression of emotions that can make a soldier’s transition into civilian life overwhelming. One day in combat, adrenaline surging, side-by-side with the brothers and sisters you’d die for — and who would do the same for you without hesitation — and the next day attempting to navigate the emotions of spouses and children while seeking your next purpose with the uncertainty of how to seamlessly assimilate into civilian life. The transition from active duty military to civilian is very often abrupt, taking soldiers accustomed to a high-intensity existence with clearly defined missions, and placing them immediately into the somewhat foreign environment of home. The sheer magnitude of the challenge is often overlooked, but there are those who have experienced it themselves and have come out the other side; those like Patrick Benson.
Benson isn’t your typical horse trainer. For that matter, he’s not the defacto example of any one thing. Combat veteran, motivator, program director, barn hand — the man plays innumerable roles, but he isn’t big on labels. What he is, is the visionary, founder and elbow grease behind a program that is empowering his fellow veterans with a renewed sense of self and taste of the camaraderie they so desperately crave. Benson founded War Horses for Veterans; a program dedicated to restoring the power and purpose within veterans byway of the horse. Based in Stilwell, Kansas, the program is now in its fourth year, and has changed the lives of nearly 200 veterans who have stepped onto the ranch, into the saddle and discovered a renewal. Together with co-founders Andy and Pat Brown, and a staff made up primarily of veterans, Benson provides a peaceful break from everyday life challenges, giving veterans the opportunity to clear their minds, share stories in a ‘judgment-free space’ and enjoy good food, high-caliber horses and a tranquil environment with fellow veterans.
Perhaps the program’s success is thanks in part to Benson’s unique ability to understand what veterans innately need. He’s seen combat, he knows intimately the varying array of emotions and uncertainties that his brothers and sisters in uniform experience after leaving the armed forces. “To a veteran, war is much easier than everyday civilian life,” Benson explains. “You have your mission, you have your task, you’re with your team and you have a clear objective. It can be scary ..., but you know what you need to do.
In civilian life, you have all of these things going on, you’re having to make your own decisions, you’re raising a family and dealing with all those emotions that are typical for most people, but it’s a lot to take on coming from a combat environment.” Through War Horses for Veterans, Benson’s mission is to restore the confidence and sense of purpose within veterans, helping give them the tools to thrive in life and a taste of the brotherhood they deeply miss. The success has been astounding, and to Benson’s credit he connects on a very real level using the tool that transformed his life, the horse.
While deployed in Iraq, Benson thought about his future and how he’d parlay his love for horses into a career after he hung up his uniform for good. He wasn’t a lifelong rider, but rather, he had a natural talent and knew definitively that the view of his future would be seen on horseback. “While I was deployed, I wrote a letter to clinician John Lyons to get a spot in his certification program,” he recalls. “I remember him responding with ‘keep your head down, and we’ll see you when you get back.’ ” When the day came and Benson left the military for civilian life, he abruptly experienced what so many veterans do — a complete and utter sobering moment where uncertainty envelopes a soldier. “I was literally in engagement one day, then a few weeks later I left my brothers and became a civilian.” Benson’s strategy was to immerse himself in work with intense focus. He completed the John and Josh Lyons program to learn the nuances of being a successful clinician. He would then spend the next decade grinding; working tirelessly training horses, showing at every level and transforming his natural talents on horseback into classically-trained experience. First came reiners and rope horses, followed by dressage horses, jumpers and eventers. His boundless curiosity crossed disciplines and afforded him opportunities to competently and successfully ride, train and show in both a western saddle and an English seat.
It was amidst the early years of his training career that Patrick experienced an awakening of sorts, laying the foundation for what would become his life’s work and a beacon of hope and positivity for hundreds like him. “About 8 years after I left the military, I noticed smells started triggering some things,” he recalls. “I now know that it was the beginnings of PTSD, but back then I didn’t even know what that was.” He reached out to a close friend with whom he had served. It was the first time Benson had talked about his memories from combat since he’d left the military. He found that he missed that level of connection desperately. It was soon after that Benson was giving a clinic and was approached by an older man that complimented his work with the horses. “He told me ‘you did a really good job fixing a pretty rank horse, but you’re not even realizing that they’re fixing you.’ I later learned that he was a Vietnam vet. He got it, he knew,” says Benson. Over the next several years, it became more apparent all the time that his chosen vocation was a lifeboat, constantly teaching him positivity, compassion and control over his emotions with the horse as his vehicle for recovery. Horses had given him purpose, opened doors professionally, introduced him to exceptional people and taught him that emotions, movements, mood and subtle cues have a noticeable effect on the animal under your saddle. “Finally, I had a buddy come up and we worked some horses together. He told me it was the first time that he had clarity since before the war. A light bulb went off; this could help other people as much as it had me,” said Benson.
“It’s humbling. I’m honored. And I have a lot of pride in these veterans and the program we’ve put together. But really, the credit is due to the horses. They’re amazing animals, and they have the capacity to change lives when we let them.”Patrick Benson, War Horses for Veterans Co-Founder
It was during this time that Benson was working for Andy and Pat Brown on their ranch in Kansas. He sat on the porch with Andy one night and shared his vision for a program that would relate to veterans through horses, but more importantly, it would do it on a level that they could identify with. “I wanted veterans to know they aren’t there to be psychoanalyzed. Horses are the bridge and the veterans are their own best therapy.” Benson shared his plans for the program that night during what he thought was a simple conversation with his boss and mentor. As it turned out, it was so much more. “Thirty minutes into our conversation and Andy said ‘Get it started.’ ”
With the Brown’s support behind him Benson laid the groundwork for the program he’d been quietly planning for years. His challenge was lofty. “I asked myself, ‘how can I get my stubborn, hard-headed buddies to be part of something like this?’ ” That question was the basis for the program, and why War Horses for Veterans was developed to be different. “The idea of our program comes down to providing everything I didn’t have when I got out of the military, all facilitated through the horse. I wanted these veterans to ride and work really nice horses, not just any rescue. And that’s because I don’t ever want a veteran to be limited in what they can do by the animal they’re on. Their only limitation is themselves, if they allow it.” Benson isn’t a fan of limitations and does everything he can to empower veterans with a positive and driven mindset. “I’m not really good with the term, ‘I can’t,’ ” he says.
One of the beautifully organic things about the program is that veterans learn without being taught, simply by touching, grooming and riding the horses together with fellow soldiers who understand them. “The effect that the horses and the farm have is crucial,” says Benson. “It’s an environment by design and allows these veterans to be comfortably vulnerable. They have to be honest with themselves here but whatever happens, happens. No one is there telling them that they have to talk about anything. But all the sudden you’re surrounded by a group of people where you can say something that civilians would hear and it would be foreign. If you say it around us, we get it. We’re in our comfort zone.” A pillar of the program is restoring purpose, a goal that Benson pursues fervently with each veteran who steps onto the ranch. “If you have purpose, then you have drive,” he says with conviction. This is very often the foundation that crumbles when veterans move into civilian life, leaving behind the military and the clearly-defined purpose they knew.
Based in Stilwell, Kansas, the program is now in its fourth year and has changed the lives of nearly 200 veterans who have stepped onto the ranch, into the saddle and discovered a renewal.
LEFT - WAR HORSES FOR VETERANS PHOTOS
Andy and Patricia Brown, Co-Founders
Andy Brown and his wife, Pat, own a pipeline supply company. Over the years, he has employed numerous veterans of war. Andy has been a trail rider since his childhood and has always been passionate about horses with an equal passion to empower veterans. Pat and Andy both empathize with our fighters, as well as with their horses. They see a strong link between the two and provide veterans and their horses with that connection by opening up their home and farm to combat veterans.
Patrick Benson, Co-Founder/Director
Patrick Benson is an Army Veteran who served in the Infantry from 1998 to 2004. His numerous military operations enable his understanding of the physical and emotional strain on our combat veterans. As a professional horseman, he manages a training and breeding program for performance horses.
John Parker, Director of Development
John Parker, USN Retired. John was a Combat Photographer with five Combat Deployments to the Middle East with various Special Forces units from around the world. He has experienced several Equine Therapy programs and brings an honest and unique perspective to the program.
Gary Llewellyn, Assistant Director
Chief Warrant Officer 2 and Scout Pilot, Alpha Troop, US Army in Vietnam in 1969, became involved with War Horses for Veterans after it changed his own life. Speaking about his friend and tail gunner, Sgt. First Class Lloyd Pittman, US Army Infantry, 75th Ranger Regiment, Gary remembers, “We were like brothers, but October 13, 1969, was the last time we saw each other until War Horses for Veterans. We were reunited here in April 2016, and it was like no time had passed.” To Gary, this program is a wholesome and real opportunity to experience the brotherhood he had missed for so many years and to recount stories, laugh and disengage. “The experience here made me whole again.”
Each round of the program is three days, with every expense from travel to meals and lodging covered entirely by the generous donors who share Benson’s commitment to veterans. “I tell the veterans, ‘what’s three days of your life?’ That’s not much of a commitment to try something that could change everything.” And change everything it does. Whether a veteran is a seasoned horseman or touching a horse for the first time, War Horses for Veterans somehow seems to end each three-day run with a group of comrades at the same level; connected, refreshed, steady and looking ahead with renewed vigor.
The program offers horses of every level and caliber, from steady ranch horses to more sensitive and finely tuned ‘sports cars,’ as Benson calls them. Regardless of their level, each of the program’s horses are well-bred, in exceptional shape and cared for to the highest level, which includes a consistent exercise program and specially-designed nutrition regimen supported by Platinum Performance® formulas. “Horses are so powerful, and they know it,” says Benson. “It’s all about trust. You’re on the back of a horse, and if that horse really doesn’t want you there, then you’re not staying on. You have to trust the horse, and on the flip side, the horse has to trust you. It builds a bond and a connection that, a lot of times, has been shut off for a long time.” Through their interactions with the horses, veterans see how movement, stress level and even breathing impacts the behavior and performance of the horse. “I tell them ‘just breathe,’ then, your diaphragm relaxes and the horse relaxes. When they start learning those things, it makes a big impact on their life and their ability to cope and calm themselves down.” Over the course of each three-day program, Benson watches as each veteran’s shell chisels away. It’s a combination of the lessons taught by the horse and their time back together with their fellow soldiers, regaining confidence, a sense of community and the empowerment of support, humor and direction. “Any of us in the horse industry knows that you get on these horses and you’re literally in the clouds,” says Benson. “The horses are a vital part of the program because I have yet to see anything break the ice like they do. The veterans are talking to each other while they’re grooming a horse, they’re learning to ride, they’re jumping, they’re riding reiners, they’re laughing and telling stories. I want them to know that the sky is the limit.” Veterans go at their own pace and learn that with horses there’s no faking your level of fear, tension, comfort or calm. If you feel it, they feel it. It’s lessons like this that help veterans understand how to better control their emotions for the benefit of not only themselves, but the people in their lives. “I was very timid at first,” recalls veteran and program alumni, Jeremy H. “But I quickly began to loosen up with the guiding and teaching of Patrick Benson. I’ve yet to meet someone as knowledgeable in horsemanship as he is. Horses have this intuitive and supernatural ability to mirror what you put out in terms of emotions. Being prey animals, they force you to be authentic and dig deep inside in order to be able to work with them. Grooming and riding have an ability to calm you and force you to be present in the moment, which vets struggle with. I left feeling confident, wanting to serve again and with a sense of purpose I had longed for since getting out of the Army.”
“You have to trust the horse, and on the flip side, the horse has to trust you. It builds a bond and a connection that, a lot of times, has been shut off for a long time.”Patrick Benson, War Horses for Veterans Co-Founder
To Benson, the key is the horses and the communication and healing that they facilitate by simply being the special animals they are. “A lot of times these veterans laugh like they haven’t laughed in a long time. People wonder what can really happen in three days and I tell them that they’d be surprised what can happen in one hour. It’s their weekend, not mine. We accommodate what they need, and a lot of that is the camaraderie they’ve been missing. It’s engrained in our culture. You yearn for it, you want it. And we’re able to provide that in an environment that allows you to regain that sense of brotherhood that you lost when you left the military.”
Benson has witnessed extraordinary things since War Horses for Veterans came about, and he’s designed the type of program that speaks to veterans on their level. A key differentiator of this program when compared to others is its encouragement for veterans to return as many times as they’d like. They have one rule, however; bring another veteran with you and you’re welcome to come back. Benson designed the rule because he saw veterans leaving programs on a high, only to return to the stresses of life with no continuing support. With War Horses for Veterans, the support is permanently available, as long as veterans bring a fellow soldier and pay the healing forward.
Along with experiences on horseback, Benson and his small team assist veterans with job opportunities and facilitate networking to help create meaningful careers. They introduce veterans to business leaders — often veterans themselves — who have become a success and are happy to share their stories, answer questions and give advice. “We encourage entrepreneurship a lot, and we have a mentorship and leadership development program as well,” Benson says proudly. Thanks in large part to his vision and grit, War Horses for Veterans has struck a cord with soldiers struggling to assimilate into civilian life while handling the lingering effects of combat. His impact and that of the horses is real and spreading, with each alumni of the program bringing a more centered and positive approach to their own lives and those of their families, friends and fellow soldiers. “Last weekend we had a reunion here,” Benson shares. “We do that a lot, and this time we reunited the 75th Rangers — Special Operations guys — from Vietnam, that hadn’t seen each other since 1969. You can only imagine what it was like to sit there and listen,” he says in awe. “One of them had such a breakthrough just being with his buddies. This whole time after Vietnam, he’s never been able to laugh and talk about the great times, the bad times and the people they lost. To be able to have that release, the healing has already begun even before they leave here. He came up to me and said ‘I’m in debt to you for the rest of my life.’ You hear their stories of when they came home from war, and it was nothing like what we have. One vet from the group told me ‘this is the homecoming I never got.’ ” To Benson, he’s the one that gets the most benefit out of the program. He sees it as a gift to hear veterans’ stories and to facilitate change that can impact the rest of their lives. He has big plans that will undoubtedly come to fruition thanks to his unapologetic determination and the group of donors, led by the Browns, that stand behind him eager to help change the lives of our nation’s heroes. The program will welcome spouses together with veterans for the first time this year, helping to create a shared experience and positive platform for growth. “These veterans have, a lot of the time, shut their emotions and their ability to bond off for a long time. It’s a protection mechanism and a survival technique,” Benson explains. “But now, if you’re able to be vulnerable with the most important person to you, your spouse or your partner, that’s huge. Personally, that took me years.”
He’s seen his life’s mission become a reality byway of the exceptional animals he loves and has leaned on himself. “It’s humbling. I’m honored. And I have a lot of pride in these veterans and the program we’ve put together. But really, the credit is due to the horses. They’re amazing animals, and they have the capacity to change lives when we let them.” Benson knows first-hand that the effects of war are for the rest of your life. “You’ll never be the same person again, but the facts are the facts, and good or bad, it doesn’t define who you are and what you can be,” he says. “I’ve been there too, and the people in the program, we have that bond from the beginning. We understand them because we are them.” The ranch and the horses on it can reshape the future for veterans so deserving of happiness and fulfillment. They’ve stretched the bounds of what the human body and spirit are capable of giving, and to Patrick Benson, giving back to them is his highest honor. War Horses for Veterans is everything to so many, and its brightest days are even yet to come. “These veterans are a part of something now,” says Benson. “We’re a group and we’re a family. When they leave here, they’re walking taller, their shoulders are back, their chest is up and you can hear their tone change. The purpose is back.”
Patrick Benson co-founded War Horses for Veterans with Andy and Pat Brown. The program's staff is made up primarily of veterans.
Each round of the program is three days, with every expense from travel to meals and lodging covered entirely by the generous donors who share Benson’s commitment to veterans.
“I served in the US Army Infantry from January 2002 until June 2013. Like many veterans, I served in many deployments to Iraq throughout my tenure. Also, like most veterans, I suffered from depression and PTSD and still do today. I went to the War Horses for Veterans program and had an incredible experience. Bonding with the horses and the environment took all my everyday issues away. The program is surrounded by veterans who actually care about your well-being and your family. Patrick and I talk weekly, which really makes this an experience that doesn’t go away. The founder, Andy Brown, you will never find a more impressive and kind individual. This man cares about what you have done for this country and is giving back to you.”
“I am not sure I can accurately put into words what this organization has done in my life. I went out there with a lot of skeletons in my closet and was under the impression that I was this broken man who has nothing left to offer this world. I had very minimal experience with horses and was very apprehensive and nervous as a lot of veterans are. I had been in a lot of other programs for vets, and this was gonna be the last one. It was my last-ditch effort to find purpose and seek healing. You are really able to tell how much they value the veterans. They really make you feel like part of the family from day one. Last but not least, you meet the horses. Horses have this intuitive and supernatural ability to mirror what you put out in terms of emotions. Being prey animals, they force you to be authentic and dig deep inside in order to be able to work with them. Grooming and riding have a unique ability to calm you and force you to be present in the moment, which vets struggle with. This experience inspired me to come back to Kentucky and form a Vet Org of my own. I left feeling confident, wanting to serve again and with a sense of purpose I had longed for since getting out of the Army. I truly encourage anyone who is on the fence of going, just go. I can assure you that you won’t regret it. Horses and the camaraderie of the staff at War Horses gave me a new lease on life, and there’s no looking back.”
“I served in the Army as a Combat Engineer 12B from September 2006 through January 2014, with deployment to Iraq from 2010 through 2011. I was medically retired for numerous emotional and physical injuries, which haunt me even now after numerous treatment processes. I had such an amazing time here with some very amazing people. They made me feel like family, and for the first time since being retired, I felt alive and wasn’t all wound up, nervous and on guard inside. Being around the horses was like nothing I have ever experienced. Rifle, the horse I worked with, seemed to sense every emotion I was feeling and somehow seemed to calm me. I didn’t know how connecting and bonding with other veterans who share similar experiences, bonding and connecting with horses and simply just being away from your everyday life could make such an amazing difference.”
Veterans do not pay to participate, so War Horses for Veterans could not exist without donor help. If you're considering donating to the non-profit, visit their website https://whfv.org/.
by Jessie Bengoa,