Who knew Butter could bring Nathan Fahlin relief from the anxiety and anger that plagued him after his deployment to Iraq?
Fahlin, a 29-year-old Army National Guard veteran, was skeptical when he arrived at a Wilton stable to take part in Saratoga WarHorse. The three-day program in natural horsemanship, sometimes referred to as horse whispering, pairs struggling veterans with retired thoroughbreds. The connection is designed to release the stress vets have bottled inside themselves.
Fahlin, of Duluth, Minn., had found some healing for his post-traumatic stress disorder through counseling with a Lutheran pastor and from long talks with Vietnam veterans at his church. But he said it was his connection to Butter, a retired chestnut gelding originally called Three Lions and later nicknamed for his calm demeanor, that brought Fahlin a deep peace that has continued since the weekend in November when he went to Willow Run Stable for Saratoga WarHorse.
“It’s like part of yourself dies when you go to war, and everything begins to reawaken when you go to this program,” he said.
It’s an experience that has been repeated with 70 veterans since November 2011, about half from the local region and half flown in from other states.
Vietnam veteran Bob Nevins, a medevac pilot with the 101st Airborne Division who was wounded in action in 1971, founded the program partially in response to the rise in suicides among U.S. military personnel since the post-9/11 wars. Suicides of service members rose to a record 349 last year, according to a January report by The Associated Press.
“The invisible wounds are more detrimental than the visible ones,” Nevins said.
He sees veterans who feel broken, closed off from the rest of the world.
“They come in very skeptical, because they can’t feel, they can’t connect,” he said. “We send a kid to war; when he comes back we’ve got to take care of him.”
He initially spent his own money to care for the horses, fly veterans to the Capital Region, feed them and put them up in a hotel. Now, donations sustain the $2,500 cost per veteran, and the group aims to raise enough money to open a permanent, self-contained center that could serve 700 veterans a year. Currently, the organization borrows space at Willow Run Stable, and some of the seven horses are stabled elsewhere.
Nevins expects the organization’s 501(c)(3) application to be designated “pending” in the next few weeks, which will allow it to accept tax-deductible donations.
Nevins has been recognized for his community service work. He was honored in April as the Capital Region’s 2013 Jefferson Award medalist and will travel to Washington next month to represent the region at a national ceremony.
Nevins is quick to emphasize that Saratoga WarHorse is not designed as therapy or rehabilitation and is not competing with traditional treatment programs or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But the program changes people, leading to emotional breakthroughs their therapists and loved ones notice, he said.
Program organizers believe the connection with the horses changes the veterans’ brain chemistry.
“The researchers are very interested in what we’re doing because they know that there’s something that’s happening in the brain that’s making this happen,” Nevins said.
Gordon Shade of Clifton Park knows something changed in his brain when he connected with Whiskey, a quarterhorse gelding.
Before he went to Saratoga WarHorse, Shade was ready to die. Post-traumatic stress disorder had plagued Shade, now 44, since he got out of the Navy in 1994. He had served six years, the first two in a construction battalion and the last four as a SEAL, he said.
Afterward, he would wake up screaming from nightmares. He wouldn’t go outside, got anxious going to the grocery store and has been unable to work the past 15 years. He cut ties with most of his family and friends.
And despite seeing a psychiatrist for the past eight years and being on medication, his marriage was suffering.
So when doctors diagnosed a precancerous tumor on his pancreas several months ago, he decided he wouldn’t have surgery, even if it turned cancerous.
“I was going to let it go, and I wanted to die,” he said.
But his wife, Karyn, found out about Saratoga WarHorse and called Nevins.
“I was like, ‘What is this horse thing going to do for me?’ ” Shade recalled.
He wouldn’t go, but Nevins kept calling Karyn once a week for months, asking how her husband was doing. Finally, his curiosity aroused by Nevins’ kindness, Shade gave in and went through his class in December.
He describes his connection with Whiskey as a spiritual experience.
“I broke down, and I don’t know what happened, but something lifted off my shoulders that I’ve been carrying for 20-something years,” he said. “It’s like the horse forgave me.”
Finally, he felt there was something to live for. So on Jan. 8, he underwent 17 hours of surgery to remove the precancerous tumor. Afterward, doctors told him if he hadn’t done so, the tumor would have quickly progressed and probably killed him within a few months.
Since the class, he has stopped seeing his psychiatrist and stopped medication and feels better than ever. He no longer yells at his wife. He’s starting to reconnect with some family and old friends and was planning to attend a family reunion this weekend.
Saratoga WarHorse classes take place once a month, and May’s class starts today.
On the night before the class starts, veterans are screened by a psychiatric nurse practitioner and meet Nevins and each other at the hotel. The next morning, they come to the stable, a peaceful farm on Gurn Springs Road near Exit 16 of the Northway that nevertheless looks and sounds worlds away from the rushing traffic.
First, the veterans learn about the program and about horsemanship. They learn the retired racehorses are themselves adjusting to being pastured on the farm, far from their regimented training and racing schedule, Lane said.
Then comes the connection. The directions are simple and the effect profound.
Human and horse go together into a ring, and the horse follows its instinct to find a way out, said Marilyn Lane, director of equine operations and acquisitions for the program.
“Every new person is a new predator,” said Lane, a writer who trained horses for 20 years.
The veterans are taught about herd mentality, how to read horses’ body language and how the horses will interpret the veterans’ body language.
“You can teach a person where to hold their eyes, how to position themselves,” Lane said.
To start, the person asserts dominance by walking in quick, tight circles in the center of the ring and flapping a long lead in the horse’s direction, making it run faster around the outside of the ring. A few minutes tick by, and the horse realizes there’s no way out. It dips its head, signaling it accepts the person as a leader.
The veteran slows to a more relaxed walk, snapping the lead fewer times. The horse slows, too, and lowers its head again. Finally, the person stops walking and turns halfway away from the horse, head lowered in a passive gesture.
The horse stops, its muscles visibly relaxing. It then crosses the ring, walks to the veteran and stands, trusting now, at the person’s side, often lightly touching its nose to the person’s shoulder.
Everyone involved with the program says words can’t describe the power of the connection between human and horse at that moment.
Veterans whose feelings have been bottled up for decades break down in tears when the horse crosses into the center of the ring and nuzzles them, as well as when the veteran takes a few steps and the horse follows.
Lane has seen veterans open up when they come out of the ring.
“When they walk out of that round pen, they’ll tell you things they wanted to do as a kid,” Lane said.
The experience is so different from talk therapy, in a way Fahlin felt was more powerful because he was communicating with the horse without words.
“You’re just used to talking about your experiences and how they made you feel,” Fahlin said. “I almost feel like I’m suffocated or I’m trapped in my own mind.”
He’s not trapped anymore. Fahlin is focused now on entering a private Christian college this fall to study to become a minister and help other veterans.
His friends have said they see a change in him since he came back from Saratoga WarHorse. He seems calmer, less angry.
“I don’t react,” he said. “I think through things differently.”