The nonprofit organization uses horses to build skills that can help ease veterans’ transitions into civilian life.
equine therapy for vet at Restoration Ranch in Texas
Credit: Courtesy of Restoration Ranch

For military veterans—especially those who have seen heavy combat—returning to civilian life can be daunting. Physical wounds, mental trauma, PTSD, and the feeling that your friends and loved ones no longer understand you can be overwhelming for a number of men and women returning from active duty. Nationwide, suicide rates among veterans continue to rise, serving as a grim underscore to a daunting challenge. 

For Derek Knapp, the executive director of an equine experiential learning center called Restoration Ranch, this challenge is personal. Restoration Ranch connects veterans with horses who come to the facility needing a second chance, something near and dear to Knapp's heart. The Army Ranger and combat veteran knows a thing or two about what the men and women who visit the ranch are going through. He returned from his last deployment to Afghanistan in 2013, and the 5th-generation Texan found himself turning to his cowboy roots after his time in the military. Back in the saddle, working with horses again led him to a personal revelation.

"I started working in the round pen with this retired racehorse who was pretty angry around people," he tells Daily Paws. "I realized that he had some of the same feelings that veterans can come back with. 'I joined the military, I did my job, then once I got hurt they didn't have a use for me anymore.'"

It was a big breakthrough for Knapp, one that he says allowed him to move forward in a way that he hadn't been able to before his time with the retired racehorse. Like many combat veterans, Knapp knows that seeking help can be very difficult. But after his own experience in the pen, he knew there was power in the connection between human and animal that could help others who may be struggling to talk about their trauma.

"Veterans don't want to feel like they're getting help," Knapp says. "Many of them, because of their training, want to feel like they're helping. So we try to put it in the frame of 'hey, we've got some horses here who were abused and need some help rehabbing. You want to come out and give us a hand?'."

woman feeding horse at restoration ranch
man riding horse at restoration ranch
Left: Credit: Courtesy of Restoration Ranch
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Restoration Ranch

At the ranch, participants can sign up for events designed to help both the animal and the human. Free programs like the Veteran Equine Partnership Workshops teach veterans and their families horsemanship skills—everything from riding and handling to caring for the animal and cleaning out stalls—that can help them release tension and stress, improve communication, and build trust. 

Founded in 2016, the ranch's evolving stable of horses have backgrounds that are as varied and complex as the veterans they're paired with. Some of the animals were rescued by the county sheriff's office from abusive situations. Others are retired racehorses, like the one Knapp trained with, while a handful led very comfortable lives as show horses or jumpers. But now, they're all employed for the same goal—to help veterans cope with and understand their own feelings and emotions in ways that traditional therapy might not be able to.

Kanpp says the ranch's programs are designed to meet every veteran where they are in their journey, regardless of where in the process that may be. 

"A lot of people who transition from the military, for the first couple years they're fine. They get jobs, they go back to school, they find ways to keep their minds occupied. It's around that 4-5 year mark, when they maybe finish that schooling or become complacent in those jobs, that they start to struggle a little."

Not every participant's experience is the same, but Knapp and his team work with each individual to find a horse and an approach that meets them where they are.

"We have veterans that are just getting out of the military and are transitioning back to civilian life, and we've got some Vietnam vets who have been out of the military since the '80s," Knapp says. He describes the Restoration Ranch team as a sort of partnership program, where they match the right horse with the person who needs that animal's specific talents and traits. 

"The horses are good at using you as a mirror," he explains. "A horse could be completely relaxed and then, maybe they're paired with a veteran who's dealing with some emotional trauma. The horse is gonna reflect that. Then you can ask that veteran 'hey, are you working through some stuff right now?'"

man brushing horse at restoration ranch
Credit: Courtesy of Restoration Ranch

It's a natural evolution for Knapp to take the reins at the ranch. He spent his formative years prior to joining the military working on cattle ranches. "As a rancher, you are trained to see the horse as a tool," he says. "You don't always develop any kind of relationship with a particular horse, because there's a job to do. But now, coming back from combat, I see them very differently. They're capable of just as much intelligence as dogs or any other animal. They are able to be these mirrors for what people around them are feeling."

That "mirror" effect can help veterans learn how to process the feelings and emotions swirling around in their heads, especially if the veteran isn't quite ready to verbalize those feelings to another human being. But even more, Knapp says the ranch offers a quiet place for veterans and their families to come and spend quality time outdoors with the animals. It's also a place where they can find community and connection, and there's something for everyone who visits the property.

In addition to learning new skills in horsemanship, many will return to offer their own talents outside of the stable. Knapp says the group includes veterans who work as professional chefs who volunteer their time to cook meals on-site. There's also a garden where families can volunteer their time growing vegetables. "We've got veterans who came here when we opened our doors in 2016, who are still coming back and helping," Knapp says.

It's one of the most important messages that Knapp wants to convey: No matter how long you served, or how long you've been out, you've always got a place at Restoration Ranch.

"At the end of the day, we just want them to know that they're not alone."

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to talk with someone now, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline for resources that can help.