Healing Hooves

Operation Equine heals veterans, active service members, emergency responders, healthcare workers and their families one horse at a time.

Bright orange rays fall into the barn as horses chase each other in a neighboring corral. A devious, charcoal cat struts her way around the pasture, making sure visitors know who’s in charge. Some goats bleat in the background as chickens run around the yard. The sounds of a farm are relaxing and often help people let their guard down. At least, that's according to Michelle Kaye, MA and LPC, Founder, Executive director and Lead Therapist for Operation Equine, an organization dedicated to serving those who serve through equine therapy.

Michelle is the type of person that greets you with an enthusiastic wave and wide smile, even when meeting for the first time. Her passion is contagious and her dedication admirable. After years working as a Licensed Professional Counselor with kids, Michelle felt burnt out. It was during this stage of fatigue around 2008, that Michelle heard of a friend who had returned from being stationed in the Middle East. Like many other service members returning from overseas, her friend was hurting. Horses saved him.

Because of her friend's experience, Michelle knew her next project would be to return to the countryside and being practicing equine therapy. With years of arduous work and persistence, Michelle founded Operation Equine in January 2019 and earned a 501(c)(3), non-profit classification in August 2019. Her mission through Operation Equine is to provide equine therapy for active military, veterans, emergency responders and healthcare workers.

But why horses? In Michelle's experience, the groups she helps are uncomfortable being vulnerable and are unlikely to share their thoughts with a therapist in an office. Service members and horses even have a lot in common. Horses are herd animals. Service members work in units, in teams. Let's just say, they get each other.

“Horses come from a place of zero judgment,” says Marie Hancock, owner and director of Colorado Equine Specialists. “They take you as you are. [Horses] are expert communicators and masters of nonverbal communication and relationships. They are intuitive and read non-verbal language."

Marie says it like this: horses are 1,200 lb. lie detectors. About five years ago, Michelle met Marie during a military breakout session at an EAGALA conference. They exchanged information and went on their way. It wasn’t until 2019 when Michelle reached out to Marie for help, hoping to use the Colorado Equine Specialist's farm as a stomping ground for Operation Equine. Michelle also partnered with Allegiance Ranch and Rescue, founded and operated by Gloria and Dan Timmons in Erie, Colorado.

"Connecting with our veteran community is our number one priority here at Allegiance Ranch," Gloria explains. "At Allegiance Ranch, we strive to provide a safe and welcoming place for veterans, active-duty military, first responders, and their families, to find release from everyday challenges. We intimately understand the power of horses to heal... When Michelle approached us about a potential partnership, we were ready for the opportunity."

Michelle also enlisted the help of Dave Fingers, a 10-year active duty, Army veteran. Dave is the Co-founder of another veteran-focused organization, Veteran's Passport to Hope. He was even honored as Denver 7's Everyday Hero for his work at Operation Equine.

"This is my way of giving back to the military community," Dave states. On his harder days, even he makes sure to spend time with his horse, Beau. 

Dave and the rest of the Operation Equine team anticipate an increased need for therapy in the coming months with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the U.S.'s exit from Afghanistan.

During a session, Michelle and other certified therapists to allow their clients to dictate where a session takes them. Some walk around with the horses while the others are given challenges to complete. One challenge is setting up jumps for the horse. The client must assign difficulties they are having to each jump and lead the horse over them. Serving as a metaphor, the client is allowed to lower the jumps so that the horse can scale them easier--much like how life's difficulties might not be as large as they seem.

Those at Operation Equine have seen their fair share of the connection between horse and service member. Michelle remembers one Vietnam veteran who hadn't told anyone about his experiences while deployed. It wasn't until he had time alone with a horse that he felt safe enough to shed his emotions that had been bottled up for decades.

"This is why we do what we do," Marie describes. "When a person interacts with a horse for the first time, you see his or her head is held higher, the heart opens and the face softens. It is the goosebumps moment... It literally leaves you weeping." 

The Sponsorship Fund keeps Operation Equine running. Clients are asked to donate if they can, but it’s not required. Michelle understands that therapy is expensive and wants to make it accessible to all income levels. Part of this accessibility is also providing equine therapy for family members of service members.

"We serve the entire family because the entire family serves," Michelle says. "If you call them family, we call them family." No proof of relatedness is necessary to receive help with Operation Equine.

In the beginning of Operation Equine, Michelle worried she didn't have a right to be in the military space. She feared she'd call someone the wrong rank or say the wrong thing. Now, she teaches military culture competency courses for civilians. Through the team she's built and work she's done at Operation Equine, it's safe to say she's earned her place.

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