Sean Harrington, the veteran mentor program director, and a horse show each other some love.

Even when someone is at rock bottom, there may still be hope.

Daryn LaVoie came back from Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I was haunted by what I saw and fell into a depression and started drinking,” he said. “Then when my father died, it got much worse.”

He realized he missed the camaraderie he had in the military. “Veterans need to find other people like them (who know) what they’ve been through,” he said. “I really missed the kinship I had with my fellow soldiers.”

One night after drinking too much, he went to bed with a loaded .38 handgun—which went off. The bullet passed through his temple, hitting his optic nerves; surgeons had to remove both eyes. Four months in an induced coma were followed by two years of rehabilitation at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

The camaraderie was still missing—but LaVoie found it at the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues horses which have been abused or neglected, or were destined for slaughter.

“It transformed my life,” LaVoie says. “I meet other vets every Wednesday for two hours, play guitar, talk and then help with the horses. I groom (the horses) and gently rub them so they can rest and relax. We formed a special bond, and I felt a calmness while working with the horses. There’s a special one; he knows my voice.”

Coachella Valley Horse Rescue was founded in 2008 by Annette Garcia. “When the economy took a big dive, some people couldn’t afford their horses,” she said. “They tied them to trees, or didn’t feed them, so we decided to start a nonprofit to rescue horses.”

For veterans, the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue runs the free “Horsinalities” Veterans Bootcamp; the organization is accepting applications for the program in May.

Of course, the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue helps people, too. It offers rehabilitation programs for veterans and children, and brings miniature horses into schools and senior-living facilities. The nonprofit also works with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H, offers lessons to people who want to learn how to ride, and puts on a camp for kids.

For veterans, the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue runs the free “Horsinalities” Veterans Bootcamp; the organization is accepting applications for the program in May.

“When we rescue horses, we find out what their best purpose is, such as working with veterans, children, horseback-riding lessons, or our Horse Tails (reading and painting) program,” Garcia said.

Because of health issues, some horses just go on long walks, or go to the spa where they get bathed and groomed.

“It’s the same with veterans when they come back into society,” Garcia said. “Many of them are lost and don’t have a purpose. They find their purpose when working with horses. Our veterans come in shy and may have difficulty even making eye contact with us. But after they start working with our horses, the transformations are miraculous. They start to smile and laugh and have conversations with us and their horse. The bonds that are created between the vets and the horses is a wonderful thing to see.

For LaVoie, the chance to heal through his interactions with horses has been a lifeline.

“It was my dream to get back on a horse since I used to work with them,” he said.

According to a Columbia University Irving Medical Center study, horse therapy—such as that offered by the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue—has been found to significantly reduce PTSD and depressive symptoms. The U.S. Census Bureau says there are about 19 million veterans, and according to Retreat Behavioral Health, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—meaning there are a lot of veterans like LaVoie who need help.

“We are here to heal the horses,” Garcia said. “But at the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue, we often say, ‘Who rescued whom?’”

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Cat Makino

Catherine Makino is a multimedia journalist who was based in Tokyo for 22 years. She wrote for media sources including Thomson Reuters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Inter Press Service, the Los Angeles...

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