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Horse power: Wounded warriors receive healing, support through Academy’s equine-assisted therapy

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) -- Just as service members come from all walks of life, so do the 30 Academy-owned horses an Army veteran and wounded warrior said comforted him when he took part in the Warrior Wellness program here.

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Legendre suffers from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, deafness in one ear and a traumatic brain injury. By connecting with the horses, staff and other combat veterans at the Academy's Equestrian Center, he said he's gained hope and found reasons to keep moving forward.

"The horses don't care how damaged you are," he said. "Some of them had been abused prior to coming to the Academy. What they care about is how you treat them."

Legendre, 39, enlisted in the Army at 17 and served in the infantry. After several deployments, he endured life-changing injuries, lost close friends in combat and watched his marriage crumble.

Also a cancer survivor, Legendre said although he'd never been around horses, they immediately sensed his pain when he visited the equestrian center.

"They just knew," he said. "They knew I was hurting. I had a very natural connection with most of them, and they loved me."

The Academy's Warrior Wellness program, developed in 2009, has helped Legendre and over 100 soldiers and their families reconnect amid new realities and rehabilitation. Located on 950 acres here, the equestrian center allows veterans to experience equine-assisted therapy, enjoy a mountain setting and spend quality time with horses and others at no cost.

Legendre, who now resides in Waveland, Mississippi, was connected to the program here through the Army's Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson

"You can't replace what this environment has to offer," said Jeanne Springer, a clerk and equine specialist at the center. "What we have at the Academy is a treasure and it needs to be protected. We want to hold on to it for the future of our military families because programs like ours are where families can heal."

Veterans can volunteer 20-40 hours a week, feeding and watering horses, cleaning pens and throwing hay.

"It's more of a working ranch environment," said Billy Jack Barrett, the co-founder of the program and manager of the equestrian center since 1980. "Some of the soldiers really like working with the horses and fall in love with them. They'll spend hours grooming them or cleaning stalls for something to do. They find it therapeutic."

Some veterans also participate in weekly equine-assisted therapy sessions where they spend one-on-one time with a horse and an equine specialist.

"We work with them using the horse as a therapy tool because horses are so honest in their interactions," Springer said. "Some like to work with the center's equipment, some like spending time with the horses and others simply enjoy being quiet and still, just watching the horses."

Many young veterans' careers are cut short when they return from combat with severe health problems, Legendre said.

"The program brings them hope," he said. "I'll never forget when I helped a young triple amputee get on a horse and watched him ride into the mountains. He came back a different person. I saw how the experience changed his life."

Former Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment commander, retired Col. John Mayer, told leaders last year that the Academy's Warrior Wellness program is the best suicide prevention program anywhere.

"These programs are hard to find in the military due to lack of interest and finances," he said. "The magic that comes from being with a horse is incredible. Injured by war, it brings veterans a feeling of hope and purpose when working with horses. Ranch work is great healing for their body and spirit."

The equestrian center is funded by its boarding and rental riding services. The center boards 137 horses owned by military families, retirees, cadets and Defense Department civilians. The equestrian center staff hopes funding will eventually be available to build an indoor arena to expand their services.