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A participant in a War Horses for Veterans program tries out some cowboys skills at the horse farm in Stilwell. // Photo by Beth Lipoff

Most of the people who come to the War Horses for Veterans farm in Stilwell, KS, don’t have any experience with horses, but by the time they leave, they know everything from how to groom a horse to riding one at a trot and roping a plastic target.

The real magic of the setting isn’t so much learning horsemanship as it is learning ways to calm yourself. Jacob Greenlief, director of veterans outreach and equine management, says a horse can tell your heart rate from as far as 4 feet away, so they teach things like learning to control your breathing and relaxing your posture as part of the programming there.

“We like to say the horse is the mirror. If you’re giving a horse anger, it’s going to give you its own version of anger back. If you’re being passive with the horse, it’s going to reflect that reaction back to you,” Greenlief says.

Participants take those techniques home with them and use them to cope with situations in life, especially those where they would have reacted with anger previously. It’s a program that’s open not only to veterans but to first responders as well.

This quiet environment, populated with others who have similar experiences, becomes a safe space for many participants. 

“We don’t force anybody to talk to anybody, but everybody that works here was either law enforcement or military, so we kind of know the struggles, and that’s kind of what allows these people to come here,” Greenlief says. “We just let them relax. We let them let it go because it’s always just built up inside.”

They spend their days working with the horses and spend the nights in a nearby bunkhouse. Transportation, meals, activities—everything’s included in the experience, and the veterans don’t have to pay a cent. It’s all funded by donations. Their biggest fundraiser happens each year in May.

Greenlief estimates that about 400 people participated last year. Some are first-timers, but many people come back over and over.

There are week-long programs as well as shorter one-day programs, and people come from all over the country to take part. Greenlief himself started as a participant when he was living in Illinois. He’d been in the Marine Corps for nine years before getting discharged due to injuries. 

“I wish this would have been in my life a lot sooner. I mean, it would have helped with a lot of pain and troubles within my own life and marriage,” Greenlief says. “I’m a father of three, kind of struggling not only with physical injuries but the mental struggle of leaving the military. I never thought I would, and then all of a sudden, you’re out the door, and you’re in an unknown world. Being back around like-minded people and able to connect these people with other veterans or other organizations to help them with the transition is a big part of what we’re doing.”

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A participant in a War Horses for Veterans program tries out some cowboys skills at the horse farm in Stilwell. // Photo by Beth Lipoff

Ben Thomann is a former Army Green Beret who retired from the military to Peoria, IL, in 2021. Coincidentally, when he came to War Horses, he found that he had interacted with all of his fellow participants in the group at some point during his military career.

“It was honestly kind of comforting, realizing I’m not the one going through all this stuff,” Thomann says. 

He was struggling with both family issues and with post-traumatic stress from his military work. War Horses gave him the space to find a little peace.

“One of my new favorite things to do is go clean the stalls, and I learned to practice being present, trying to appreciate some of the small things around me. I love to go down to the barn in the morning,” Thomann says. “The air is nice and cool, you hear bird chirping, and you’re moving around the stall with this 1,200-pound animal. You hear them breathing and moving, and you block out everything else in your mind, and you focus on, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing now. I’m here to shovel shit.’”

He’s seen just how much his emotional state affects the horses.

“I had to develop ways to just focus on my task, focus on the horse, and block out everything else around me and just breathe—rhythmic breathing, controlling my heart rate, focusing on the horse, building that bridge of communication and that bond with the animal. Having them respond to you—in some cases, it was a very dramatic shift from when I wasn’t in control and when I was. It really opens your eyes to what your body’s doing,” Thomann says.

Thomann likes that the program gives him something new to learn, and he’s been back several times whenever he needs to re-center himself.

“What they put the special operations people through, it’s a challenging course. It’s not ‘pet a horse and feel better.’ You learn real cowboy skills, and I think that speaks directly to people like me. We don’t want to be coddled. We want to learn something and learn how to deal with it in a way that’s going to be fitting for our personality,” Thomann says.

Now, when he comes back to the farm, he’s not just a participant but a mentor, starting conversations and helping make that safe space for others.

For more info about War Horses for Veterans, visit warhorsesforveterans.org  

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