Nestled away in Southern Johnson County lies a picturesque equestrian facility that serves as a haven of sorts for military veterans and first responders alike. In 2015, when Patrick Benson and Andy and Patricia Brown first began War Horses for Veterans (WHFV) they began with just a simple shed and round pen. “This was always the vision,” Patrick says as he motions toward the beautiful facility that WHFV has now become. “The premise is providing opportunities for our combat veterans and now for our first responders as well.”
Patrick joined the army infantry himself in 1998, and his time in service has granted him a unique understanding of the bond between service members and the specific challenges they face.
“I knew I wanted to teach,” Patrick says. “I like helping, and I like challenges.” His background with horses, his acute awareness of the resources our service men and women lack upon being discharged, and the experience of personally suffering from PTSD, combined to form his vision of helping veterans through horses. He stresses the importance of giving them an opportunity for healing and professional growth. WHFV offers programs designed around mental wellness and physical health that includes clinical psychologists and follow-up care, as well as the therapy of working with horses. WHFV flies qualified candidates in from all over the country at no expense to them to take part in these programs specifically created for veterans.
When asked, why horses? Patrick shares, “A horse forces you to be present and to be vulnerable. Many of us are very closed off from our past experiences and traumas or we may have immense survivor’s guilt. You can’t lie to a horse.” He explains that a horse is a non-biased teacher, the quickest of ice breakers, that can essentially serve to open a veteran up to being receptive.
“Coming from our backgrounds, many times compassion, vulnerability and affection are some of the hardest things for us to show because it means letting go, and we are often times so guarded, or maybe we think of those qualities as a weakness,” Patrick says. He adds that the business of working with horses can be extremely therapeutic. “When you work with horses, you will always be a student, you will always be learning and growing.”
He states that many veterans will return to the program as mentors or sponsors, and some will even work as part of the WHFV team. “Who better to work here than our own? We empower them and provide a platform for them to take care of their families and to give back to their community, and through doing that, they are actually healing themselves as well. It may be someone who comes to stay here long term, or maybe we’re just a stepping stone to help them along their journey. We teach them the trade, and within the trade is the therapy,” he says.
Patrick shares that first responders severely lack adequate resources to care for their physical and mental health and that they are under a great deal of stress. “We have to give back, we have to take care of them,” he says. “The goal is to be doing something bigger than yourself, to become a mentor. To provide these opportunities that we otherwise didn't have as veterans and hopefully improve someone's outlook and quality of life. Hope is a powerful thing.”
Patrick encourages anyone who is interested in learning more about WHFV to come out for a visit. You can also learn more at warhorsesforveterans.org.