Horses Provide Healing, Housing and Employment to Veterans

“These horses are giving therapy and employable skills to us,” relates Trey a former Marine participating in the premier Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program run by Elite Vocations in Nipomo, CA. The program kicked off its very first 10-week program on June 5, 2023.

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“A veteran who is housed and employed is less likely to struggle,” remarks Luke another program participant, who comes to the program with experience in the horse world. Housing and employment are the primary outcome goals of the Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program which is designed to provide job skills in the equine industry, as horse work often comes with housing. Yet, the bonus is the therapy each veteran gets while learning a trade.

Each veteran goes through the 10-week Groom Elite professional groom training program while also receiving additional education in ground manners training and other natural horsemanship methods, to provide them the skills and education they need to gain employment in a number of equine-related fields.

The Horses are the Teachers in the Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program

Retired racehorses are the real teachers in this program. These special teachers are also receiving the benefit of the extra handling which results in making each horse more easily adoptable. As an Industry Partner of the ASPCA’s The Right Horse Initiative, Elite Vocations helps re-train retired racehorses from Right Horse Adoption Partners like Win Place Home transition to new careers in caring homes.

“Took, is my favorite horse,” remarked a program participant about one of the horses in this premier program. “We bonded in our first round-pen exercise. Our spirits interconnected.” He also went on to explain, “Its amazing how fast you go from one state of mind to another. You have to change your mindset when you approach the horses. This clears your mind. It’s soothing and clears the head of negativity.”

The Therapy

“This gives me three days of therapy for 10 weeks,” says Justin who wants to help his fellow veteran brothers and sisters. Justin participated in his first equine-assisted therapy program in January of 2023. “I had never experienced a horse before that encounter. After that three-day program, I was told I had a natural ability and was encouraged to dig deeper. So, I’ve been part of this idea since the beginning.”

Justin explains the impact of working with these horses at liberty in the round pen: “Facing a horse confronts you with a high level of danger. Yet it forces you to face the threat and manage it without aggression. We then learn we don’t have to be that way anymore. So, we put the bottle down, put the dope down, etc. It’s pretty awesome.”

Another participant Kevin, originally from Brooklyn, New York, shares his experience. He loves animals and just lost his special dog companion. The horses are teaching him how to handle his emotions. “I have anxiety,” states Kevin. “I worked with Took. Knowing he sensed me, I had to be calm. I came away from the first session at peace. I felt serenity.” For Kevin this program gives him purpose. “I’m much calmer at the end of the day and I can manage my life better. If not for these horses, I was suicidal.” Now Kevin wants to live on a ranch and work with horses.

The Horse is a Mirror

“I went black,” recalls Trey when talking through his first day in the program which was a week later than the rest of the crew. “A helicopter took off from a neighboring field and my mind went black.”

This moment happened when Trey was working a horse at liberty in the round pen. The horse looked to Trey for assurance, but found none so the horse took off trotting with heightened senses. Trey says he only remembers hearing Program Director Simon d’Unienville say, “breathe.”

 “I popped out of the black,” explained Trey. “I had to calm down; to slow down. Eventually I was able to bring the horse down to the walk and then back up to the trot. I had to work through my fear with the horse. I realized that if I could manage a 1500-pound horse in a round pen, I can do anything.” Trey continued pondering the lesson learned, “The horse is a mirror of what we are doing. We can see inside ourselves this way.”

After that session, Trey spoke with fellow veteran participant Luke about his experience. Luke says he also benefitted from helping his buddy through the situation. “Being a part of that was special. I could help Trey think through and understand why the horse was acting that way. Seeing the guys who haven’t worked with horses before, then work through their issues is just amazing. This program is phenomenal. We get knowledge, a career, therapy.” Luke wants to join Simon and Yvette as a future program instructor.

This Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program is Saving My Life

For Andrew the seed was also planted at the local equine-assisted program he joined Justin in experiencing in January. “I was going through a dark time. Over the weekend I could feel a connection with the horses. I had a spiritual awakening that first day. I became buddies with Simon. He asked me to be a part of this program. So, I adjusted my sails and turned my rudder. This program is saving my life. I no longer feel that my best days are behind me.”

The Inspiration

Simon d’Unienville, Elite Vocations’ Program Facilitator, was born and raised in South Africa. He and his wife Yvette began to see the need for this program while Simon was the Executive Director for the Monty Roberts group of companies. Simon was especially drawn to the therapeutic aspect of helping veterans and other vulnerable populations find healing through horsemanship. So, when his time with Monty ended, he and Yvette began to turn their dream into a reality. That was in February of 2023.

Their dreaming connected them with the Echo Group Band of Brothers in Santa Maria, CA which, through a partnership with Camp Flores, offers housing for struggling veterans. This is where many of this first crop of participants comes from. Additionally, Elite Vocations found the ideal home for their program at the Legacy Village Wellness Center at Solid Rock Ranch in Nipomo, CA. Legacy Village provides a 90-day in-patient recovery program for veterans struggling with substance abuse disorder. The horse barn on the 22-acre property was not being used for horses.

“The barn was being used as storage,” describes Yvette d’Unienville. “We cleared that out and brought in a round pen and sand footing through donations.” Thus, the facility for the Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program was constructed. Elite Vocations had a home. Yvette also reached out to the local horse community seeking donations of tack and equipment.

Simon and Yvette developed the Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program to incorporate the Groom Elite materials. These materials develop participants into certified racehorse grooms. Simon became a certified Groom Elite instructor in May of 2023.

All the participants look up to Simon. “Simon is knowledgeable and patient,” describes Kevin. “We see how horses react to him. They stay calm in his presence.”

Veterans Vocational Horsemanship Program Funding

Elite Vocations provides this program to the veterans for no charge. “We rely on donations from local businesses and individuals,” explains Yvette. “We’ll eventually apply for grants and VA funding, but we have to get started first. This whole endeavor is a leap of faith.”

Elite Vocations is holding their first annual “Red, White & Blue” fundraising gala at the Elks Lodge in Santa Maria on August 20, 2023. Tickets are $75 per person including dinner. Come experience the work of the special teachers – the retired racehorses – in the lives of veterans.

Photo credit: Sharon Jantzen Photos

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