War veterans get help from Rick Iannucci's 'therapeutic riding' program

At his New Mexico ranch, Rick Iannucci invites war veterans suffering from PTSD and other problems to work with horses and heal their wounds.

Rick Iannucci, director of Cowboy Up!, a horse therapy program for combat veterans, keeps a little notebook with quotations in the back pocket of his jeans.

As he searches for words to explain how working with horses helps heal war-torn veterans, he pulls it out and reads aloud the words of Winston Churchill, who served in the Boer War: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

For 2-1/2 years, a stream of Iraqi and Afghan war veterans – many carrying both physical and psychological scars of combat – have found their way to Mr. Iannucci's Crossed Arrows Ranch, about 15 miles south of Santa Fe, N.M.

After first learning to groom and walk the specially trained quarter horses, the vets work their way up to mounting and riding them around the arena.

As the veterans bond with the horses and learn how to "read" them, they begin to heal and feel connected with the civilian world again, Iannucci says.

"Horses are so in tune with you – if you're uptight, they'll know," he explains. "They coax a certain level of contemplation out of you. They demand for you to be in the now. When the vets start working with the horses, they immediately start calming down."

Some arrive with physical disabilities, such as limited use of arms or legs wounded in combat. Others are dealing with traumatic brain injuries, a result of roadside bombs or sniper attacks. Many have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"We call it 'post-traumatic spiritual disorder,' because we think the thing that happens to people in war is a wounding of the spirit," Iannucci says. "Our goal is to find that [wound] and start working on it."

Iannucci and his instructors integrate physical, psychological, and spiritual healing. "That's having faith again – faith in themselves, faith in others, and faith in God – or the Great Mystery, as our native [American] brothers and sisters call it," Iannucci says.

Leaning against the fence of the arena, Iannucci watches Nancy De Santis, his fiancée and an instructor, teach Iraq veteran Kristy LaFrance how to "lighten up" on the reins.

It's been a tough day for Ms. LaFrance. She arrived, her children in tow, walking with a cane and feeling irritable – believed to be an effect of PTSD. She also has a brain injury and leg wounds.

It took all the strength she could muster, emotionally and physically, to hoist herself into the saddle. Nonetheless, she later left the arena smiling. "She was in a wheelchair for three years," Iannucci says. "She's got determination and drive and will. It's not the disability, it's the ability that [the vets] possess that we look at."

Sterling Bucholz, a combat veteran who was shot in the head by a sniper in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, leaving him temporarily paralyzed on his left side, says working the reins has helped increase the range of motion in his left hand.

More than anything, though, the program has given him hope, says Mr. Bucholz, who also suffers from PTSD.

Iannucci has been a big part of that, he adds. "He creates a safe environment, a community, and here you have that brotherhood that we had in the service," says the former marine, now a Cowboy Up! instructor and ranch hand at a nearby ranch. "It's like one big family. The first thing Rick said to me was, 'Welcome home.' "

Iannucci, a compact man with a purposeful demeanor and a walrus mustache, grew up in horse-racing country in southeastern Pennsylvania. From about age 12, Iannucci trained and rode quarter horses his family kept at his cousin's farm.

After retiring from his job as a US marshal working in Colombia, he moved to New Mexico and returned to horsemanship in earnest. He bought the ranch and built a horse arena, initially to provide a place for children to ride.

A few years later he started inviting veterans to come and work with the horses. Word about Cowboy Up! began to spread.

Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, former director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, visited the ranch last year.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D) of New Mexico has also paid a visit. "Rick doesn't hesitate to take on a challenge, but he's also a very humble and patient person," Mr. Lujan says. "The program is truly impressive. Just to see the faith these men and women have is incredible."

Therapeutic riding dates back to the years after World War II, when Britain and Germany used it to rehabilitate veterans. It gained popularity after the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, when, despite being paralyzed by polio, Liz Hartel of Denmark won a silver medal in dressage.

As more veterans return from overseas, Iannucci hopes his program can expand to other states. "It's even better than we dreamed it would be," Iannucci says.

"There's no better, more gratifying experience than when you see [the veterans] make progress mastering these skills."

• Visit horsesforheroes.blogspot.com

• For more stories about people making a difference, go here.

Editor's note: Staff photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman traveled to New Mexico to see the 'Cowboy Up!' program firsthand.


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