Ramon Dominguez and Saratoga WarHorse

It has only been in recent years that our society has recognized post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat military personnel returning home from war and anyone else exposed to an extreme traumatic event that has altered their life. Going back to World War I, this disorder was trivialized with the term shell shock.

There are a number of therapeutic programs and medications now to treat this disorder that has disrupted and often ruined so many lives. While the success rate of these programs can vary, most of them unsuccessful, there is one, on a smaller scale, with a 100 percent success rate that is still in its fledgling stage and seeking the means to expand.

The difference between this program and others is that this one bypasses the traditional psychotherapy and medication and goes directly to one’s soul. And what has touched the human soul for centuries? Horses.

There lies the foundation of Saratoga WarHorse, based in a small facility in Wilton, N.Y., some 15 miles north of the horse Mecca of Saratoga Springs.

Bob Nevins, a former medevac helicopter pilot with the 101st Airborne who was wounded in Vietnam, founded Saratoga WarHorse several years ago after retiring as an airline captain and knows how the horrors of war can damage a young person by wiping out all the beauty and innocence of youth and creating a vacuous view of life that is remedied only through escape. That escape often manifests itself in depression and even a suicide attempt.

“You can wave the flag and send a kid to war with a nice clean uniform, and when he comes home he’s gone from high school basketball star to killing some 15-year-old kid accidentally in Afghanistan or doing something that is totally against what he’s been raised to do and believe,” Nevins said.

“I’m not trying to be all things to all veterans. I’m taking that percentage of kids who are on track to kill themselves and I have to reach out to them as a veteran and gently coax them to take a chance on coming here. I don’t use words like therapy and all the buzz words the military wants you to use, like building resiliency. A guy sitting in the dark with a gun in his mouth doesn’t want to hear your happy chat. I just want to do what I do quietly, because it’s so powerful and really helps the veterans. I’m talking about kids who are suicidal. The turnaround is so dramatic, but I have to protect them at the same time. You don’t want to be talking about someone who’s going through the darkest period of their life. So we try to keep it on a personal one on one level.

And that one on one level is with a horse. Winston Churchill said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” That is the key to Saratoga WarHorse. Nevins has shown that all the medication and all the therapy cannot compare to a simple look into the eyes of a horse. For centuries, as long as man has bonded with the horse, those eyes have served as a mirror to the soul.

“When you make this connection with the veterans, they are so emotionally shut down they can’t feel anything,” Nevins said. “But when the connection with the horses takes place it’s like a rush of oxytocin (the hormone that is released when we express our love for someone) that floods their brain, and that is the trigger that shatters the walls that they’ve been hiding behind. So there is actually a medical and scientific reason why this works.

“So many people want to project love onto the horses, which is fine, but horses are really animals of instinct. So we’re engaging them and working with them where they’re most comfortable, while teaching the veterans the horses’ language. As a result, the horse bonds with them and they feel as if the horse understands them. That’s what the veteran needs. It’s internal, because they finally feel accepted.”

The process and results of Saratoga WarHorse can be witnessed in videos and stories presented on their website (Saratogawarhorse.org). To get the full emotional impact of what transpires there you just have to watch the horses, all of whom are rescued Thoroughbreds, come to the veteran in the round pen and then follow him around. This is accomplished by several movements and gestures that are taught to the veteran by accomplished horse whisperers. The results are startling, from the look on the veteran’s face when the horse comes to him to his emotional reaction to the entire experience.

“Because of how vulnerable and sensitive these guys are, I have to do this in a very short period of time, which we can do because the secret takes place in the round pen,” Nevins said. “I don’t need them for three weeks or 10 sessions. I just prep them, they go in, they have the experience, and to them it’s life changing. We just stand back, and when they come out crying we just give them a couple of hugs and send them back to their family. There was one guy who didn’t cry and I really expected him to. When I brought him back to the airport, he put his bags down and looked at me and just broke down crying and kept thanking me. It’s all about this release in the mind.”

Saratoga WarHorse is not only about veterans. It is about anyone dealing with an emotional, life-altering trauma who needs to regain their focus in life. That is where recently retired jockey Ramon Dominguez enters the picture.

Dominguez was at the peak of his career as one of leading jockeys in America when he was involved in a spill at Aqueduct on Jan. 18, in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury that forced him to retire. To suddenly give up the only thing he knew how to do and what he loved the most left a deep emotional scar that was difficult to deal with.

Anne Campbell, wife of Dogwood Stable owner Cot Campbell, is on the board of Saratoga WarHorse and was amazed at the results when Dominguez went through the program.

“Ramon was doing everything he was supposed to do, but you could tell looking in his eyes he was depressed,” she said. His wife, Sharon, urged him to try Saratoga WarHorse, and he agreed and was extended an invitation to go through the program. On Nov. 18, he went through a session with some Vietnam vets, so they were older guys. I talked to Bob Nevins the next morning, and he said the first day Ramon went through the program he was smiling and feeling better, and he talked about his feelings a great deal at the de-briefing session. The next morning, Bob took him to the train station to go back to New York and Ramon told Bob he could not believe what had happened to him.

“He had been texting Sharon the whole time he was there and kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this; I’m feeling so much better.’ He told Bob he wanted to be the poster boy for Saratoga WarHorse, because it had changed his life so dramatically. It’s such a big boost for WarHorse. Ramon is doing well following the trauma of such a life-altering event. Ramon said, ‘I’ve been around horses all my life. I know horses. But I’ve never had the kind of experience as when that horse turned around and looked me in the eye and followed me.’”

For Dominguez, who has been in love with horses his entire life, this was a different type of bonding that gave him a tremendous sense of accomplishment. This was not the exhilaration of a head-and-head stretch duel or leading a horse into the winner’s circle. This was an awakening that was more about the horse itself than a victory on the racetrack.

“It was very different from anything I’ve ever done with horses before,” Dominguez said. “It was a very positive experience for sure. My wife and I were in Saratoga and she met one of the people involved in the program. They were talking and asked me if I wanted to do it. I thought it would be very exciting. I went there with no expectations. I knew it would be something different than riding racehorses, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the bonding and the connection with the horse that you experience. Regardless of your experience in horse racing, whether as a trainer or a jockey, this is something totally different that was very very exciting for me to have done it. I can say the same thing for the veterans that were there. We all had a great time.

“It was something that was touching and one of those things people have to experience in order to really appreciate just how wonderful it is. I can’t emphasize enough what a positive experience it was. Horses are wonderful animals that I absolutely love and to get to interact with them on a different level was very special -- from being in the round pen with them to having them follow you around. It gave you a sense of accomplishment to be able to connect with the horses and have them listen to you and respond to you, and basically follow you around like a dog. It was a beautiful thing to experience.”

Nevins added, “Ramon said to me, ‘I can’t tell you what you’ve done for me. If I can do anything for you; if you want me to talk to anybody or use my picture I’ll be glad to help.’ There’s a real parallel between a jockey and a soldier. Every time that gate opens you don’t know if you’re going to make it around the track. That’s what happens with the soldier. It keeps playing on your mind over and over again. ‘Is my luck going to run out?’ When you’re young and dumb you don’t think of those things. But after you’ve been wounded in combat or injured on the racetrack, it really makes it a lot harder. The horses, the jockeys, and the veterans all have one thing in common. Just because their career ends it doesn’t mean their life is over. They just have to find a new purpose.’”

Nevins said it costs him $2,500 to put a veteran through the program, but that is cheap compared to the millions it costs taxpayers to put them on disability through the VA (Veterans Administration). So far, there have been close to 100 veterans who have participated in the program and the success rate has been 100 percent.

That success rate is due in good part to the generosity of people in the racing industry and corporate people wanting to do something meaningful and with purpose on a more immediate level, rather than simply writing checks out to a particular charity. During the Sararoga meet, trainer Bill Mott and his wife Tina put on a dinner for the veterans at the conclusion of the program.

Nevins says the medication and psychotherapy doesn’t work and the government knows it doesn’t work, which is the reason why the VA has such a high failure rate. He finds it frustrating that they don’t look outside the box. The American Legion recently completed a two-year study that came to the same conclusion as Nevins.

“The vets feel like throwaways and complain they’re being medicated to death,” Nevins said. “They know talk therapy doesn’t work because there’s no way to release that oxytocin through verbal conversations. It’s got to be an emotional jolt. We don’t tell the veterans any of that. We just teach them the horse’s language and the horse bonds with them and they get this rush. Their reaction is always the same – “I don’t know what happened.’”

“We tell them we don’t know what happened either. They go back to their families, and their wives call and thank us, or psychiatrists call and ask, ‘How did you do that? I’ve had this kid for two years and I haven’t been able to break through.’ So were going to just keep doing what we do and let the government catch up to us. We pay for everything, because if you give them an excuse not to leave their house they’ll take it. We tell them we have people in the Thoroughbred industry that have already paid for their plane ticket and their hotel. All they have to do is show up. And that’s why it works.”

One of the reasons Nevins has been able to fund the program is that the facility he uses is owned by his attorney, and when he saw what Nevins was attempting to accomplish he turned the place over to him. That was how he was able to keep operating for the first two years. Once the money ran out he began to look elsewhere.

As for the horses, the more Saratoga WarHorse grows the more horses will be needed. And the more horses are needed, the more horses they can rescue.

Ramon Dominguez has come to terms with his fate and his life and has broken through that barrier of denial he built following his injury.

“At this point in my life I’m doing OK,” he said. “I’m very happy and looking forward to the future.”

30 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Deltalady

Steve, is there a place where donations can be made to help fund a vet's Warhorse experience?  Many look this time of year for worthy causes to donate to.  Thanks for covering this amazing story, and am so glad for Ramon that he is re-claiming  and re-purposing his life.  

02 Dec 2013 6:26 PM
Danette

Oh my gosh that is so awesome Steve.  I watched the video a few weeks ago on HRTV when they aired it and it was just so touching to watch the vets go through the transformation - see the bond that occurred between them and the horses.  So powerful.  I'm ecstatic that Ramon went through it.  He is such a wonderful person and I've been so worried about him. This is just the best news ever!

02 Dec 2013 6:57 PM
Anncat

I just need an address to send a donation.  Thanks, Steve.

02 Dec 2013 7:21 PM
gravideo

Thanks, Steve, for telling a story that needs to be heard far and wide. In particular the contrast between the abject failure of the VA and the success of Saratoga Warhorse. Even the BLM could learn a lesson here.

02 Dec 2013 7:39 PM
SoloSolo

Wonderful story, Steve.  Ramon was one of the elite jockeys--classy, competitive and highly skilled.  Ramon and Saratoga WarHorse are a good fit and he would make a great 'poster boy' for this worthy organization.  Blessings on them both!

02 Dec 2013 8:25 PM
Paula Higgins

Another eye opener Steve. I had no idea this program even existed.  Animals of all kinds have helped people, particularly children, with emotional challenges/setbacks etc.  Dogs especially. Horses have a very special connection to man and it makes perfect sense for them to help those in emotional distress. In London, they have a program for at risk children that teaches the kids how to ride and take care of the horses. Anytime you can bond with an animal, it is a heartwarming/emotional experience. For people who have experienced trauma, even more so. I am glad Ramon was helped in this program. That seems especially right considering his special relationship with horses in the past.

02 Dec 2013 9:52 PM
Mary Zinke

I sincerely hope Mr.Aloof reads this blog. I would personally pay for him to attend this type of therapy.

02 Dec 2013 10:04 PM
Racingfan

Deltalady,there is a place on their site for donations.  What a wonderful program!

02 Dec 2013 10:30 PM
Linda in Texas

Steve, just told a friend we know tonight that i truly believe horses talk through their body language and they understand us and that they have to think. So to read this wonderful story about the successful therapy that is being accepted and received by the humans in need of understanding, is just awe inspiring. Dovetailing the good that the treatment is having on those humans needing help is awesome and then to use rescued horses, saving them it just cannot get any  better.

This touches me deeply for man and horse. I am but 100 miles from Ft. Hood. We have horses needing homes rather than the usual sad fate so many have. And Fort Hood sends more men off to war than any Fort in the U.S. Everyday the large number of suicides continues and it must be stopped.

To that end, I hope Mr. Nevins will eventually incorporate and get this type of treatment going in many states. And have teaching sessions for those who would love to duplicate his efforts under a franchise set up.

This is another great Thanksgiving Real Story. Thank you Steve.

And Ramon we all love you and stand with you and your family. Just know that.

Linda

02 Dec 2013 11:10 PM
LINDA MARIE

HORSES RESCUING VETERANS RESCUING HORSES ...AND POSSIBLY A SECOND CAREER FOR RAMON ...BEAUTIFUL!

02 Dec 2013 11:30 PM
Steve Haskin

I appreciate all the comments. Here is a link to send donations or you can go to the website and click on to "Contribute" at top of page saratogawarhorse.com/contribute

03 Dec 2013 12:25 AM
Proud Acres

Wow Steve, what a story.  What a great way to provide new careers to raced thoroughbreds.  Hope you had a great Thanksgiving and have a wonderful Christmas.

03 Dec 2013 6:50 AM
Smoking Baby

OUTSTANDING!!!  Way to go Bob Nevins!!!  Makin' a difference bro.  Thanks for sharing Steve.  This is really something special.

03 Dec 2013 8:43 AM
smarie

This is just incredible, Mr. Haskin. I was unaware of this program and I thank you for writing about it.

There has always been a almost magical bond between horses and humans and this program is reinforcing it. What an amazing thing Mr. Nevins is doing. May God bless them all.

03 Dec 2013 10:29 AM
Newracingfan

Thanks for telling us about this wonderful program Steve.  I am never able to get any HRTV video to actually "work" so was happy to read the vivid picture that you painted here.  I hope that they will get lots of donations to keep the program running.

03 Dec 2013 3:03 PM
Davids

Steve, I believe if the non-racing fraternity within the general public were able to read uplifting pieces, such as these,then the image of racing would be cleansed somewhat. I do hope one day that you receive an award for your splendid writing over the decades. Simply marvellous.

03 Dec 2013 3:25 PM
Abigail Anderson

Steve: What a wonderful, wonderful piece. As the daughter a a WWII veteran who clearly suffered from PTSD before it had a name or anyone even knew it existed, I was moved so deeply by Mr. Nevins, as well as Ramon's words. Then I watched the special on HRTV and was stunned by how profound this horse-veteran connection truly is when you can actually see the moment when horse and vet come together. I was in (healing) tears when Butter lowered his head and came forward. Thank you so much for this extra-special narrative of hope and the reminder that horses are as much a part of our culture as the men they carried into battle. Now that our horses need a way to escape feed lots, perhaps the strength of your message will help to save even more lives. I will be sending Saratoga WarHorse a donation along with others here. Steve, you are just so profoundly gifted and that you use these gifts to help make the world a better place for all its creatures is my inspiration.

03 Dec 2013 4:57 PM
Alex'sBigFan

Steve what a wonderful piece this is. Saratoga Warhorse sounds like quite an amazing, multi-purposed operation, breathing new life into traumatized war veterans and giving new careers to rescued thoroughbreds.  Mr. Nevin's idea is ingenious, yet so incredibly simple in concept.  I think it is a proven fact that animals lower blood pressure and make you "feel better."  How many of us come home from a rough day at work or a rough day in everyday life in general, and spend time with a pet and feel instantly better?  It works, that is therapy in one of it's purest forms, emotional love and bonding. For Mr. Nevins to orchestrate this type "emotional jolt" therapy with the veterans bonding with the horses is brilliant.

I know there are people out there still traumatized from 911 and still not able to work or get their lives back to where they used to be who may benefit from this program as well.  

I really like the correlation of jockey/soldier.  How many times do we refer to the races as wars?  After all this whole TC season we had a war theme going on here.  Jockeys risk their lives daily and I think that risk is sometimes overlooked or goes uncredited or is taken for granted within the industry.  They are engaging in a type of combat, and like Ramon, may enter a race which may be their last ride out into the sunset.  Maybe this program would benefit those jockeys who are seemingly on a downward spiral of drugs and destruction turn their mental perspective around and exit the program with better coping devices to handle their stressful jobs.

This sounds like a wonderful program and Mr. Nevins sounds like an amazing man.  And as for Ramon, I am so glad to read he has found purpose again in life.  Although we will miss him forever on the racetrack perhaps we will see him in other aspects of the industry or media in the future.

03 Dec 2013 7:17 PM
Steve Haskin

Beautiful post, Cheryl, thank you. And thanks to everyone for your comments. Abigail, thank you again for those beautiful words. I really appreciate it.

03 Dec 2013 10:55 PM
Busgrabber

As a tough old-bird Marine out of Vietnam I was choking back tears when I read this column and I thank Mr. Haskin for giving this program the publicity it deserves. I look forward to sending the few bucks I can to help my fellow countrymen. Not all wounds shed blood but all veterans are blood brothers.  

04 Dec 2013 9:48 AM
Bill Two

Wonderful story, Steve.  I'm not surprised that the government hasn't embraced this form of therapy, but I am disappointed they haven't tried it.  I'm very thankful that Ramon has seemingly benefited from the program and am grateful that the vets have done well there.  We obviously need more of these therapy centers. Even hardened criminals have experienced the joy of loving another living thing when working with horses.  Churchill was right.  There is something mystical about the bond between humans and horses.  

04 Dec 2013 4:55 PM
Alex'sBigFan

Even though I never saw her in the flesh, I have always maintained here that Zenyatta possesses some kind of "healing ability."  It is just something I sense about her.  It is something intangible, I call it a "keen awareness," others may call it a "look of eagles," it is some kind of quiet resolve about them (thoroughbreds), an unspoken, underlying understanding of us, humans.  I can't explain it, it's almost as if we are the superior species, yes, and have been given the gift of speech but they seem to have something or some knowledge over us in a way.  I agree, Bill Two, the bond between animal and human is mystical.  And if Zenyatta has this quality certainly other thoroughbreds have it within them too. Alex had it in his love and affinity for children, Curlin has it, he looks right through you not at you, etc.

Perhaps Mr. Nevins, in his training of them for this program, consciously or unconsciously develops and brings this quality out more in them.  Winston Churchill definitely understood it, Mr. Nevins totally "gets it," Linda in Texas hit on it too believing that thoroughbreds and horses can go through the thought process interacting with us.  And she had a great idea about Mr. Nevins franchising this operation to other parts of the country.

The thoroughbreds, as Ramon mostly knew them, are probably a much more intense, more tightly wound animal on the racetrack circuit.  What he experienced he had never seen before in the breed so that says something right there about retired or rescued thoroughbreds finding other careers after their racing life is over and how much more they are capable of doing in life.

I am also sending my small donation to the Saratoga Warhorse.

04 Dec 2013 10:08 PM
Alex'sBigFan

Even though I never saw her in the flesh, I have always maintained here that Zenyatta possesses some kind of "healing ability."  It is just something I sense about her.  It is something intangible, I call it a "keen awareness," others may call it a "look of eagles," it is some kind of quiet resolve about them (thoroughbreds), an unspoken, underlying understanding of us, humans.  I can't explain it, it's almost as if we are the superior species, yes, and have been given the gift of speech but they seem to have something or some knowledge over us in a way.  I agree, Bill Two, the bond between animal and human is mystical.  And if Zenyatta has this quality certainly other thoroughbreds have it within them too. Alex had it in his love and affinity for children, Curlin has it, he looks right through you not at you, etc.

Perhaps Mr. Nevins, in his training of them for this program, consciously or unconsciously develops and brings this quality out more in them.  Winston Churchill definitely understood it, Mr. Nevins totally "gets it," Linda in Texas hit on it too believing that thoroughbreds and horses can go through the thought process interacting with us.  And she had a great idea about Mr. Nevins franchising this operation to other parts of the country.

The thoroughbreds, as Ramon mostly knew them, are probably a much more intense, more tightly wound animal on the racetrack circuit.  What he experienced he had never seen before in the breed so that says something right there about retired or rescued thoroughbreds finding other careers after their racing life is over and how much more they are capable of doing in life.

I am also sending my small donation to the Saratoga Warhorse.

04 Dec 2013 10:10 PM
Chris M Simonds

Steve,

You continue to inspire me with your work. It is obvious from your blogs over the years that  the horse racing community and industry are your passion, but veterans have always been and will always be in your heart.  I thank God I had the passion for horses and wish the 4 battle buddies who have taken their life since our time in Ramadi, Iraq had. I thank you for bringing this to the public's attention and hope the donations flow in after this blog, that is truly "Supporting Our Troops." You are a great writer, a great friend and great supporter of Veterans and the organizations that support them. Ramon went to battle almost everyday for us fans and it should only be fitting that he become the poster child for this program.

Chris

04 Dec 2013 10:48 PM
Jean in Chicago

Thank you, again, Steve.  Mr Nevins is absolutely right about the release of oxytocin having such psychological soothing effects.  This is the hormone new mothers release after giving birth and bonding with their babies.  It has also been shown to increase greatly in both dogs and their people just from the act of patting the dogs.  It makes perfect sense that a horse (or dog) saying 'I trust you completely' would produce the same result as a newborn saying the same thing to its mother, all of them speaking with body language.  After all, body language is far older and deeper than any verbal communication and it cuts right through the terrible isolation that many vets must be feeling.

 This 'discovery' sounds so logical that years from now people will be saying 'why didn't anyone figure this out sooner?'

Best of luck to Ramon, his family and all others who have been hurt.

05 Dec 2013 6:00 PM
Steve Haskin

Thank you, Jean, that was very enlightening and fascinating.

05 Dec 2013 6:43 PM
Lise from Maine

Hi!

I am so happy to hear that Ramon entered the program.

I hope that he does something positive with this experience, and would love to read about it.

I am sure he can find another job as it relates to horses.

How about writing a book about his life, experiences as a jockey and the after effects of the spill?

Good luck, Ramon!

Lise from Maine

07 Dec 2013 8:07 PM
Lise from Maine

Steve,

Is there a website regarding the Saratoga Warhorse?

Great story! Love reading these sorts of stories.

Thank you!

Lise from Maine

07 Dec 2013 8:09 PM
Steve Haskin

Lise, it is a great website, with some amazing videos -- Saratogawarhorse.org

08 Dec 2013 12:19 AM
Uncle Smiley

I agree with Lise from Maine.

You write as well about racing as Ramon Dominguez rode.

Consider being Ramon's biographer.  The combination of your skills... Something to look foward to.

US

25 Jan 2014 8:05 PM

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