GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — For the men and women who’ve served our country, the real war often times starts after they come home. But now, a new therapy program near Grand Haven is working to help war veterans by pairing them with rescued race horses.
‘Heroes for Horses’ is held at Out Side In Stables in Grand Haven Township.
“It’s like most of the care, concerns or worries are gone for the time that I’m out here,” Chuck Stefanich told 24 Hour News 8.
Stefanich is a Vietnam War veteran. It’s been decades since he served, but Stefanich said it hasn’t been an easy life since his return. He’s battled anxiety and depression, has visited VA clinics, and is prescribed multiple medications. But it’s out on the ranch with his new friend Charlie, a former race horse, where the worries seem to go away.
“I can’t believe that a horse can help as much as a trained professional sometimes,” Stefanich said.
Stefanich said the time spent with Charlie has helped him get out of the house. It’s also helped him connect with family members.
Chris Timmer has a similar story. The former Air Force combat engineer spent time overseas in the late 90’s to early 2000’s. Like Stefanich, Timmer has been unable to leave memories of war back on the battlefield.
“It’s not easy at all. Because they don’t teach you how to survive after you get out,” Timmer said.
Timmer has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, an all-too common diagnosis for war veterans. But when he is with his buddy Oscar, another rescued race horse, Timmer finally gets to feel the very thing he fought to protect.
“It feels (like) freedom. It’s hard to describe freedom,” Timmer said. “A horse lives in the moment. I have a hard time living in the moment. So he’s helped me live in the moment.”
While the program has been enormously therapeutic for veterans, it actually goes both ways. Oscar and Charlie are former race horses whose career on the track is over. They’ve now been rescued and given a second chance. They’re two of the lucky ones.
“The unfortunate part about it is there just isn’t enough demand for them (race horses). So many of them, unfortunately, go to slaughter,” said Jennifer McVoy, Executive Director at Out Side In Stables.
McVoy said about 10,000 off track race horses are sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico each year. Rescuing them is part of what motivated her to pilot the program months ago. Her staff of licensed psychotherapists work with the veterans and see how it helps them.
Meanwhile, the horses, many of which come to the stables with serious injuries, get rehabbed as well.
Both find a renewed sense of purpose.
“Just like the horses, the veterans are so valuable for so many reasons when they come back. They just have to find the things that they’re good at,” said McVoy.
On Saturday, May 7, the non-profit is hosting a Kentucky Derby party, a fundraiser, to show how valuable race horses can be after their time on track. The handful of veterans in the pilot program will get to show how far they’ve come with their new companion. It has been such a success that Out Side In is now looking to pair up a new group of veterans with rescued race horses.
“They should just give it a try,” said Timmer.
“Charlie may have some of the same problems I do. I think between the two of us, we’re working through some issues,” Stefanich said.
Out Side In offers a number of services. Piloted with the help of a grant, the Heroes for Horses program is free, but donations are welcome to help continue the program.