Healing connections

Understanding the veterans’ service program at Misty Meadows.


A recent fundraising email from Sarah McKay, executive director of Misty Meadows, spoke so eloquently about the profound healing that came about for Island veterans who interacted with their herd that I knew I had to learn more. She graciously granted me an interview, which appears after an excerpt from a quote from a veteran on the difference this moving program makes, which appeared in the Misty Meadows newsletter.

“As a military veteran who lives with a post-traumatic stress injury, I have many processes and therapies that assist me in life. Horses are a significant part of my journey. The patience, gentleness, clear communication, and nonjudgmental presence of horses help me to be present while re-engaging with wounded parts of myself. Being part of a horse and human herd gives me an opportunity to rebuild damaged interpersonal communication patterns and personal emotional responses in a safe and caring environment.”

Sarah, this is a powerful testimony. Would you tell me about the origin of the program?

Serving the veteran community is something that’s been on our wish list of things we wanted to do with Community Services and any other organizations working with the same population since we started programming in 2017. Right before the pandemic, when everything shut down, we did a few sessions in a small pilot program with veterans from the Community Services program. Last fall 2022, with the assistance of Bob Tankard at Community Services, we started it back up again. I was the lucky instructor who got to facilitate these sessions, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my year. 

What actually happens when the veterans come to Misty Meadows?

All of our activities, no matter the program, really revolve around observing horses being in a herd, in their natural environment. We look at them as teachers and facilitators to help us better understand how to become more aware. We teach people how to observe the horses, and then we have conversations in terms of their body language and how they move together. Getting into the subtleties during the conversation has a big impact no matter who the person is, in terms of them being more present, aware, grounded, calm, focused, and having more empathy and compassion. It opens up a whole range of things that are particularly powerful for the veteran community, or anyone who has been in any stressful situation. It helps to bring things to a different level.

Right from the beginning we saw changes, whether it was from having a horse to stand next to, putting their hands on them, doing a little grooming, or a breathing exercise. We would also do an observation, with maybe two or three or four being free in the arena, and we’re on the outside quietly observing them for five or 10 minutes. Again, we then have a conversation about what we saw. After we do something with the horses, whether leading them through an obstacle course, or matching their footfalls or breathing with the horse — all of those things to really make a connection between the person and the horse. It was powerful for the people to just take a breath, get into their bodies, relax a little bit. They kept saying, “I feel so much calmer, my breathing is better, I’m less worried about what I’m supposed to be doing, and more focused on the horse.” 

Was there anything that particularly stood out?

Coincidentally, over the course of the four weeks, we had a new horse enter the herd, and they got to be part of that integration process, which was pretty dramatic at times. We had a whole conversation about how that’s a very parallel situation many of them face when they are in the military. You are thrown into these teams together, and you have to figure it out, and there’s a lot of dynamics going on. It was really powerful for them to be part of that integration process and see how it changed from one week to the next, how it got better, and how we worked through things together. The whole thing is about a conversation about relationships, community, connection, trust, and awareness.

Are there plans to offer the program again in the future?

It has been wonderful, and we love collaborating with Community Services. It was a small program, but we look forward to doing more of that. Our goal for 2023 is to expand therapeutic programming for veterans and their families, and to offer these services at no cost. We really look for diversity in our programs, whether that’s giving little kids their first pony ride when they’re 3 years old, seniors coming from Windemere in their wheelchairs to visit the horses, or miniature therapeutic horse Tony Smalls, who visits the hospital, libraries, schools, or people’s homes. We’re looking to schedule the next veterans’ program in the spring. The program is just another way of helping us reach more people, and we need to raise more funds to keep things affordable and/or free, so anyone can come and have this wonderful experience.

What would you like people to understand about Misty Meadows overall?

That we are here for everybody … Every single moment that we spend there is therapeutic, whether it’s for me as a staff person, or our students, volunteers, or board members. That is the magic the horses have to give … and you don’t even have to be touching them.

For more information about Misty Meadows, and how to participate, volunteer, or donate, see mistymeadowsmv.org/vision-and-mission.