After Bob Nevins, a medevac pilot for the 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War, returned home to the U.S., he found that working with horses was the thing that soothed him best.
“I realized then that there was some kind of deep emotional connection that actually opened people up,” said Nevins, who also served in the New York National Guard and retired in 2011 from a 24-year career as an airline captain.
For the last three years, Nevins has been giving veterans and victims of trauma a chance to connect with world-class racehorses – and themselves – through the Saratoga Warhorse Foundation.
Nevins said 75 people have gone through the program so far this year.
“We’re creating an experience for the veterans that creates a very deep, emotional bond with the thoroughbred. That’s a catalyst for a very traumatic transformation, healing-wise, for the veteran,” Nevins said. “They have to go in there [the corral]. We teach them the horse’s language. What they’re able to do then is communicate in this silent language. That experience is so emotionally powerful that the walls just tumble for the veterans.”
Recently, he flew four former members of the Minnesota National Guard who’d served in Iraq to his weekend program near the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., racetrack to help them become “horse whisperers,” of sorts, with retired thoroughbreds.
“It’s all about that experience they have with the horse. We don’t do touchy-feely,” Nevins said. “We do a very, very powerful bonding experience that is changing their lives dramatically. ”
Spc. TJ Hawkins, a former National Guardsman, said he’d completely shut down after watching his best friend die in action.
“He meant a lot. The best brother anybody could ask for,” he said. “[I] didn’t want anybody to ask me about any good experiences in Iraq, any bad experiences.”
He said his time in the corral with a horse felt “amazing.”
“I’m on the top of the world,” Hawkins said. “It brought back the happiness I had lost from going to Iraq. This is the first time I’ve truly been happy since I’ve been home.”
Nevins said his program was about helping veterans, not just talking about it.
“We’re creating an experience for the veterans that creates a very deep, emotional bond with the thoroughbred,” he said. “That’s a catalyst for a very traumatic transformation healing-wise for the veteran.”
ABC News’ Enjoli Francis contributed to this story.