By Julie Sarno
Marilyn Lane of the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation was recently honored by the Women’s International Center (WIC) with a Living Legacy Award. Living Legacy Awards celebrate women and each year honors ground-breaking individuals from around the world who are making a difference. WIC is based in Rancho Santa Fe.
“The mission of the Women’s International Center is to acknowledge, honor, encourage, and educate women all around the world,” said local resident Bridget McDonald, Ph.D., president and executive director for the Center. “That is what we have been doing for 30 years.”
Lane was honored for her work as a horsewoman supporting veterans’ rehabilitation at Saratoga WarHorse. Lane serves as director of Thoroughbred Industry Relations and Development for Saratoga WarHorse near Saratoga Springs, New York. The WarHorse Project provides a three-day program for returning veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Lane has been part of Saratoga WarHorse since its inception in 2011. Her father and four older brothers served in the military. Lane was interviewed during her time in San Diego for the award ceremony.
“With PTSD, the problems get worse for 10 or 12 years after the veterans return,” said Lane. “Time Magazine reported in July of 2012, that there is one suicide every day. In World War I, it was called Shell Shock. World War II called it Battle Fatigue. Now it’s PTSD.”
“Horses bring people back to a calm place,” continued Lane. “There is a strong link between horses and the military.”
Lane told the story of the Saratoga WarHorse Project. It was founded by Bob Nevins, a retired pilot. Nevins served in the army in the 101st Airborne. During Vietnam, he flew a Medevac helicopter and was wounded in 1971. He also served in the New York National Guard. His love of horses, his military service and his desire to help the many veterans returning with PTSD gave him the idea for the project in 2008.
When he retired after 24 years as a commercial pilot for American Eagle in 2011, he devoted his efforts to bringing veterans together with former racehorses.
The project received national publicity when a documentary film made by HRTV (Horse Racing Television) won an Eclipse Award — Thoroughbred racing’s equivalent of an Academy Award — in January. The award-winning video and more information is on the organization’s website, www.saratogawarhorse.com.
“It was heart-warming to watch the video and see the reaction of the veterans,” said Del Mar resident Joe Harper, president and chief executive officer of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “It’s an experience that is so positive. It’s pretty emotional for them. I’m very impressed with Saratoga WarHorse, and not just the results. They’ve done so much work to get the program organized.”
Lane described the three-day program. Participating veterans fly in on a Sunday evening. They meet with a nurse practitioner. After breakfast on Monday, they go to the farm. They spend the morning in a classroom with instructor Melody Squier, who will work with them throughout the three days. According to Lane, Squier is a lifelong horsewoman. According to the WarHorse website, she “developed ‘Equipoise’ natural horsemanship techniques and communication skills to create respect and understanding.”
Initially, Squier uses a Powerpoint presentation and talks about herd behavior, longlines and the visual field of a horse. One powerful classroom exercise has participants describe themselves without using language: “How am I perceived if I can’t talk?”
Veterans work together in pairs, with one being the horse and the other having a longline. Then they all set up a round pen, as a team-building exercise. The veterans are paired with horses by temperament. A veteran enters the round pen and stands in the center. The horse he has been paired with enters the round pen.
“There is a mystique to being in a round pen with a galloping horse,” said Lane. “There is no escape. ‘Is he a trustworthy leader?’ is what the horse is trying to discover.”
Once the horse recognizes that the veteran displays body language showing that he is a trustworthy leader — not a predator waiting to eat him for dinner — the horse approaches the veteran in the center of the round pen. The horse demonstrates his trust in the human.
After viewing the documentary and other videos on the website, Del Mar Director of Media Mac McBride, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, said, “It’s remarkable to see the way those young vets just melt in the horses’ final presence — it’s like a great weight has been lifted from them. I believe that Bob Nevins sets the stage perfectly through his understanding of both sides of that equation.”
“The amount of trauma someone carries makes for a stronger connection,” said Lane. “The veterans respect the retired racehorses. The horses have clamored out of the starting gate and done battle. They’ve made the transition from being a racehorse to ‘civilian’ life.”
Lane said the first goal is to fully develop Saratoga WarHorse in Saratoga, beginning with training other instructors. There are plans for a satellite operation in Aiken, South Carolina, spurred by the efforts of prominent Thoroughbred owner and board member Anne Campbell. Lane said donations have increased since the organization was granted not-for-profit or 501(c)(3) status.
Lane met with Harper during her time in San Diego. Following the meeting, Harper said, “It makes a lot of sense to have a program like this here, because of the number of military in the area. We’ve also got a whole lot of horses. The WarHorse Project has done so much groundwork. Use the experience they have and take the next step.”
Rancho Santa Fe resident Joseph Boscacci also met with Lane during her visit. Boscacci was in the U.S. Army for 32 years, retiring as a Colonel. He spends his time volunteering with Heroes to Hire, part of the Yellow Ribbon Program. A Vietnam and Gulf War veteran, Boscacci said, “I find animals have a calming effect. They help when you flashback. The use of horses is a wonderful thing. It helps people to get through the memory of what went on.”
“The Saratoga Warhorse program does not change yesterday,” said Lane. “It simply makes it so the veterans can jump that track and take on tomorrow.”