Season Recap Part 3: Dr. Shannon Moreaux
I had high expectations - I always have high expectations. I demand a lot from myself and from students I teach, regardless of age, gender, experience or knowledge. But these students were extra special, American heroes of foreign wars. Sixteen military veterans chosen to participate in a 38-day horsemanship program to prepare them for the next chapter in their lives. The Heroes and Horses unique program consist of 3 phases. Phase 1 is 5 days of intense horsemanship and packing training, followed by an 8 day pack trip into the back-country of SW Montana. Phase 2 includes a 5 day wilderness survival school, 5 days of advanced horsemanship and packing training, and a 10 pack trip into a remote wilderness. Phase 3 is an internship with an outfitter, hunting guide, guest ranch or working cattle ranch. This year Heroes and Horses provided rehabilitative training for 2 teams of 8 students each, and I was invited to teach horsemanship in Phase 1 and 2 to both teams.
As a veterinarian, farrier and now college professor, I’ve taught horsemanship and horse healthcare and welfare for over 20 years. I’ve created, directed and taught youth programs, graduate programs, adult continuing education programs, and equine facilitated learning programs. Each and every group and each and every topic brings their own unique challenges, so I expected the same from the Heroes and Horses Program. The most consistent component in any equine facilitated learning program is the horse. Horses are a remarkable medium for teaching, learning and self-discovery. Horses seek leadership, companionship and honesty from each other and humans. Horses reflect human behavior and emotions. The word ‘horsemanship’ is derived from the horse-human relationship that evolved over 6,000 years ago, and humans have been learning from horses ever since. In order for horses and humans to have a productive relationship, humans must be good leaders. The human is responsible for the animals’ welfare so they must be able to guide, influence, control and take command of situations that could be harmful to either. Leadership is a process of influence in which a person can enlist the aid of a horse to accomplish a common goal or task. In the Heroes and Horses (H&H) program the goal is enjoying the beauty and serenity of the vast wilderness areas of Montana. Navigating the backcountry on horseback with pack animals can be a fulfilling and transformative experience if one has the right knowledge, training and leadership skills. Leadership is a behavior and a practical and useful life skill. It can be learned and practiced in a program like H&H and then applied elsewhere – anywhere in life. The leadership qualities necessary to be a good horseman are no different than those for being a good father, boss, employee or citizen. Leaders must be aware, must have knowledge or perception of facts or situations and must be intuitive – which takes experience and practice. Leaders must be attentive, observant and alert. Leaders must be accountable, dedicated and engaged. Leaders must be confident, but not without humility. Leaders must be empathetic and sympathetic but have a positive attitude. Ultimately leaders need to be able to communicate. Exchanging information is paramount to quality human and human-horse relationships. Ultimately, H&H uses horses and the horse-human relationship to help veterans recover from emotional and physical scars due to years of military service, to help them learn to be better fathers, husbands, bosses, employees and neighbors, through interactive learning with horses.
Two groups of veterans participated in the H&H program this summer. Each group of warriors were an eclectic mass: from a sixty-something retired, kind and thoughtful Navy Chaplain, to a battered and broken – but a ‘I can do anything’ attitude - ‘Jarhead’, and everything in between. One shy and quiet medic, and one more seasoned and gregarious. A gentle and reserved EOD specialist, a marine turned bullfighter, a stuntman with a “devil may care” attitude, and a combat photographer with a broken hip replacement. A self-proclaimed “hillbilly”, a very intellectual attorney and former police officer, sergeant majors and Lieutenants and fathers and grandfathers, to describe a few. All came to learn, to be challenged, to find new paths in life.
The process and experience was as different as the veterans were. Some found the horsemanship confusing, stressful and difficult at first, while others met the challenges with confidence and exuberance. Some progressed rapidly, others more slowly. Some learned it’s easier and faster to form bad habits than good ones – the hard way. No one was ever bucked off, but a few fell off. Those that fell always returned to the saddle, but not with some bruises and choice words. Some struggled with packing and tying hitches while others excelled. Some found satisfaction in teamwork and teaching or learning from their peers, while others needed more solitude and practice. Most, if not all, endured pain (sometimes the pain was apparently severe) when riding and lifting loads. Every student faced challenges and each managed the challenges in various ways. Some didn’t manage the challenges well in the beginning, but by the end of the 38 days all had grown personally and developed new skills; horse skills, packing skills, survival skills, interpersonal skills and valuable life skills.