For more than 40 years, Barbara Knopf has dedicated her life to the rescue of abandoned and abused Morgan horses. And now, on 80 acres of rolling countryside outside La Valle, these same horses are rescuing the nation’s veterans.

It’s a story with an unexpected beginning.

“When my son returned home from tours of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, we were having coffee one morning when he told me about the anxiety he’d been experiencing since his return,” Knopf said. “He said that being with the horses had calmed him and asked that I start a program to help other veterans.

“That was the beginning of Veterans’ Equine Trail Services,” she added.

About five years ago, then-Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker visited September Farms in La Valle to present Knopf with the Wisconsin Heroes Award, which honors a state resident whose compassion and commitment to a nonprofit organization has made a difference in the lives of others.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran herself, Knopf is acutely aware of the difficult issues many veterans face when they return home.

“Almost every veteran returning from a military deployment will experience some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, whether it’s anxiety, depression or social isolation,” she said. “Some vets do have a reduction of these symptoms over time and their lives will become increasingly disrupted, yet it can be months or even years before a veteran seeks help due to fears of being labeled mentally ill.”

For J.S., a 39-year old veteran who served in Saudi Arabia, it took nine years.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD after my deployment in 2003 and experienced a lot of PTSD issues, which continued despite counseling,” he said. “One day in 2012, I was at the Baraboo veterans’ office when I saw a flyer about the VETS program and decided to give it a try.

“I have been a part of the program ever since, and my PTSD issues are under much better control,” he said. “This program has changed my life.”

Preparing a horse to participate in the program is extensive and may take up to two years to complete. It is a process that is never hurried.

“My primary goal during the first year of training is to enable a horse to learn to trust people again,” Knopf said.

This is done by consistently meeting their basic needs, spending a lot of one-on-one time with them and allowing them to run free for as long as they want in the pasture.

“Because so many of these horses have been neglected or abused, we want them to know there is nothing to fear here,” she said.

Later, horses take part in exercises that enable them to remain calm during grooming and to not react to loud noises or strange objects they may encounter.

“Horses are first desensitized to grooming tools, as they are necessary to their basic care,” Knopf said. “Clippers, in particular, can scare a horse because they are noisy, and we use an advance/retreat approach to desensitize them. This involves showing the clippers to a horse slowly in stages from a distance until they relax, then walking closer until we can get close enough to groom them.

“This process is repeated in the same way with numerous other items such as wheelchairs and canes,” Knopf said.

Once a horse completes training and qualifies for the program, Knopf turns her attention to the veterans waiting to participate in VETS. An assessment of each veteran’s needs is made, and he or she is matched with the personality of a horse Knopf feels is a good fit.

“A veteran may be matched with a mare, gelding or even a foal, according to his or her issues,” she said. “For vets who are afraid of horses, we raise a few babies each year for them to work with. Our main goal is to find a partnership that will work on building trust between horse and veteran.”

After the match is made, activities are self-paced, beginning with simple tasks that emphasize touch, movement and relaxation. Later tasks may include haltering, saddling and leading. Teams work together to overcome small obstacles, then move on to achieve larger goals such as riding or driving a carriage. All activities are self-guided.

“If a veteran just wants to sit and watch the horses run in the field or just give them apples, that’s fine with me,” Knopf said. “It’s the relationship that develops between the veteran and the horse that matters, not the activity.”

Knopf said veterans with physical limitations also can participate in the program.

“Veterans that are in wheelchairs can learn to drive as carriage if they are interested,” Knopf said. “This enables them to leave their wheelchair behind and feel the power of controlling a 1,000-pound horse. This feeling of control can then be applied to other areas of their life.”

VETS also will work with the families of service members who are facing a member’s deployment, as well as families experiencing problems after a veteran’s return to civilian life.

“Many returning veterans come back to an economy where they have no job, no home and very little money,” Knopf said. “Plus, if they have been diagnosed with PTSD, they fear being stigmatized and have a difficult time sharing what can be very dark memories.

“But until these memories are dealt with, it’s difficult for a veteran to move forward. Our program assists with this process,” she said.

While there are many personal stories to be found attesting to the benefits of equine-assisted therapy, there was little formal research until an article published in the Military Medical Research Journal in January 2018 provided empirical proof. That article reported on a group of 29 veterans diagnosed with PTSD who completed a six-week therapeutic riding program and were then compared with a similarly diagnosed control group who had not participated.

Veterans who completed the program were later tested by researchers and found to have a decrease of 87.5 percent in their PTSD symptoms when compared to the control group.

Yet the precise reasons equine-assisted therapy works remains somewhat of a mystery, one which is no doubt related to the bond that develops between a horse and a human over time.

Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

For the 600 veterans who participate in the VETS program, these words make perfect sense.