A Classy Champion, 1989 Belmont Stakes Winner Easy Goer
The constant hustle and bustle of the racing industry is what propels it forward. Each year, a new select set of 3-year-olds begin their journey to the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs for a chance at glory on a national stage – one which last week garnered the biggest audience on NBC Sports since the Super Bowl.
Most of these horses will go on to compete elsewhere and a couple may even cash in stud deals after the year’s end. Though a pressing issue in racing’s discourse is life for Thoroughbreds after the track: no matter if they competed in events like the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve or lower-level claiming races, where do they go?
One farm in Grand Haven, Mich., Out Side In, helps to answer the dispute twofold by not only giving their off-the-track Thoroughbreds a new lease on life, but the people they serve as well. Founded in 2011 by executive director and licensed therapist Jennifer McVoy, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited organization’s main focus is operating as an outpatient mental health facility.
“We work with pretty severe patients. A lot of our clients are suicidal when they come in, have severe depression, other severe mental health issues,” McVoy said. “When we work with the horses, a lot of our work is not mounted. Some of it is but not a lot. A lot of it is different interactions with horses; some of it is structured activity with horses, connection with the horses.
“(There are) unbelievable changes from a therapeutic perspective, lifesaving really. We have our veterans program and all the time we hear from veterans and their families that it has changed their lives. ...We work a lot with treatment-resistant clients. For so many people it doesn’t work for them to go sit in an office.”
McVoy says that almost 200 clients walk through the doors a week, who are overseen by a group of eight full-time licensed mental health professionals alongside a herd of 19 horses, with 11 of them being Thoroughbreds sourced mostly from the now-closed Arlington Park and the TAA. The patients range widely from women and men of all ages who are being treated for various trauma.
Working with children in foster care is one of the most gratifying and challenging parts of the job for longtime equestrian McVoy, who began her career as a therapist working in the school system, and gradually began to introduce horses into her practice.
“People think, ‘Oh, they’re in a really abusive home – take them out of the home and put them in foster care and they’ll be much better off.’ But no matter how bad they were abused or the trauma was, we always end up treating them for being removed from their home and separating them from their parents,” McVoy said.
“That’s always the worst thing for these kids. They’re in foster care and they don’t know what is going to happen to them and they’re just victims for the rest of their lives.”
She says that one of the most valuable therapeutic moments is often right when horses arrive at the farm from the track and clients are able to observe how they adjust to their new environment. Many clients, especially those that have been removed from their homes, are able to relate to the same emotions the horses go through.
“Out here, even though there’s nothing for them in their life, (the kids) are so happy to see the horses and it’s the one great hour of their week. I think even going back to school, they have nothing good to talk about and most of the time they don’t get to bring their clothes with them to foster care, nothing they have already.
“For them to go out and be able to tell the kids, ‘Hey, I got to go see a racehorse, I got to work with the horses,’ it’s one positive thing in their life. To me, that’s the best part of what we do, to give these kids something positive in their life.”
Another important aspect of Out Side In is the extensive work with veterans through the Horses for Heroes program which helps to provide free therapy. For other clients, McVoy says they are able to bill insurance for the cost of the treatment which helps to pay employees. The costs of the other programs along with caring for the horses is supported by the TAA, grants, fundraisers, and community donations.
Simply getting veterans to sign up for therapy has been a roadblock in the past for Out Side In since it can be difficult to get them to accept help, or sometimes even leave their houses. The program is now offered as volunteer therapy where veterans are directly paired with horses that can be at any stage in their re-training.
“One of the things about veterans is that they only feel safe with other veterans. All of the veterans in the program are typically 100% disabled PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They come in groups of three for four hours a week,” McVoy said. “We have a 12-week curriculum and are paired with a specific horse. We go through so much; everything they go through adjusting to civilian life really mirrors what the Thoroughbreds go through adjusting to life off the track. Even down to the stigma of racehorses and the stigma of soldiers.”
McVoy says that most veterans in the program battle feelings of isolation and loss of purpose when they leave the military and that horses help them to start picking up the pieces of who they are.
“They feel like even coming out here and having a purpose and working through that, we see so much of a reduction in symptoms like isolation, depression, and things,” McVoy said. “Probably the best thing that we’ve found out of all of it is that almost all of the veterans that start in the program, before the 12 weeks are done, are also asking for individual therapy to then address the PTSD because they feel safe and they trust.”
Indisputably, whether it is a child with a troubled past or a veteran who suffers from PTSD, the common denominator at the center of change is the horse, an animal of which there is an abundance and a real need, both on the track and afterward.
“We’ll point out to a client, ‘Look how good you’re doing this; you’re able to keep these boundaries (with the horse).’ And they’ll tell us ‘Yeah, but that’s just out here.’ We always tell them, ‘Out here, this is who you are, out there is because the world is getting in the way,’” McVoy said.
“‘This is who you are; the horses see you as the person you are. They don’t care about what you wear or how much money you have or any of the other stuff.’”