Willow Run Stables, about ten miles outside of Saratoga Springs, is home to some of the finest retired racehorses in the world. These horses are notable not for what they did on the track, although a few of them were graded stakes champions. Nor are they notable for giving birth to champion offspring. The horses that live at Willow Run are special because of what they have done in their second act. They are now War Horses.
Saratoga WarHorse is a program started in 2011 by a Vietnam Veteran named Bob Nevins. The program’s mission statement states that Saratoga WarHorse assists veterans and victims of trauma who are suffering from psychological wounds through providing a confidential, action-based, equine-based experience that initiates immediate, empowering changes.
Saratoga WarHorse invites any veterans or active duty service men and women to come to Willow Run Stables for a three-day retreat - completely free of charge. The program pays for airfare, room and board, everything. The funding comes from private donors.
Participants work together to build a circular pen, then take turns being paired with a War Horse in the pen. The goal of the time with the horse is to learn how to trust the horse and to get the horse to trust you back. The experience is powerful for vets who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of them have found it hard to connect with others and to trust people since returning from war. The WarHorse program helps them tap back into that part of them that not only is capable of making those connections, but enjoys it.
The amazing thing about the War Horse program is not just that it works, but that the connection happens almost entirely non-verbally. It’s surprising and moving. Even hardened, skeptical vets are moved to emotional responses.
The program was the subject of an ESPN documentary earlier this year. In April, Bob Nevins joined Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, and a host of other dignitaries as a recipient of the prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service, often called the “Nobel Prize” for community service.
Take a few minutes to watch the short ESPN piece on Saratoga WarHorse. And if you have time this summer during your trip to the Spa, make the ten minute drive to Willow Run and visit Traffic Chief and the rest of the War Horses, and consider leaving a little something behind.