At Living Free Animal Sanctuary in Mountain Center, California, through a veteran-led program called War Horse Creek, a dream is coming true. Funds are being raised and construction is under way on Camp Harris, a haven for veterans making the move out of the military and into civilian life—a change that many transitioning veterans find extremely challenging. Camp Harris will serve as home base for this immersive transition training program, which combines a unique brand of handling and training horses with life skills training, recreational activities, downtime and connection opportunities.
War Horse Creek—created by veterans, for veterans—rescues wild mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and brings them together with military veterans in an innovative approach called collaborative horsemanship. This approach gives veterans the opportunity to master skills they may have set aside during their military tenure—skills like empathy, patience, understanding, kindness and compassion. Veterans work on honing these skills, developing a bond with their horse, which they can then transfer to their relationships with family, friends and civilian society in general.
Wild mustangs are the perfect candidates to work on cultivating these qualities in veterans. To date, 41,000 mustangs have been rounded up from public lands by the BLM and are now confined in overcrowded pens. Mustangs are generally more independent, reactive, and mistrustful than domestic horses, making them difficult to train and ride. However, the very characteristics that make them hard to adopt make them ideal for equine-related programs.
According to War Horse Creek Executive Director Ray Barmore, “Mustangs are, in effect, highly sensitive 1200-lb biofeedback mechanisms that sense and respond to a veteran’s intentions, physicality, and emotions, mirroring back subconscious issues so that they may be identified and addressed.”
And that is the key to the program. Often compared to the popular equine therapy approach, collaborative horsemanship removes the “talk therapy” feel from the equation, allowing the veteran to connect with nature, with the mustangs and with other veterans like themselves. Air Force veteran Itzel Barakat shared about her experience at War Horse Creek, ”I didn’t have to say a word to anybody. I felt my heart healing, and that’s what I needed. War Horse Creek provided a sense of relief and peace that I haven’t been able to find.”
The power of equine-related programs similar to War Horse Creek has never been more clear. New research on the equine therapy modality from Columbia University has proven that equine therapy results in brain-based changes that can increase an individual’s capacity to enjoy life, despite facing traumas and war adversities.PHOTO COURTESY WAR HORSE CREEK»
“I have been teaching veteran transition courses for 10 years, and have continually brought students up to War Horse Creek. For those already moving forward with their lives, the time spent there deepened their commitment and fully cemented the connections they were creating with other veterans. For those suffering the most, the time spent with the mustangs often resulted in a real breakthrough,” said Harold “Doc” Martin, 20-year military veteran and professor at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. “I cannot imagine a better place to help veterans transform their military experience and readjust to civilian life.”
“I cannot imagine a better place to help veterans transform their military experience and readjust to civilian life.” — Harold “Doc” Martin
In addition to collaborative horsemanship, veterans in the War Horse Creek program receive life skills training through one-on-one access to various professionals, addressing such topics as financial literacy, interview and job retention skills, career consulting, conflict resolution, higher education and trade school guidance, and wellness and nutrition advice.
On the Living Free property in the San Jacinto mountains, veterans can enjoy hiking, fishing, kayaking, yoga, and more. Living Free is home to a large cat and dog rescue, and veterans are able to connect with the many rescue animals on property, in addition to helping with any ongoing maintenance and construction projects.
Most importantly, veterans have plenty of down time to relax in the shade of the thousands of pine trees or around a campfire under the stars, enjoying the company of other veterans.
Ultimately, say the directors, the goal of War Horse Creek is to inspire a sea of change in the way we, as a society, welcome our warriors home, and reduce the cost of military service on veterans and their families.
The idea behind Camp Harris was to create living quarters for veterans for overnight stays, ultimately expanding to a full-time, year-round operation. At War Horse Creek, they believe a fully immersive experience for several days is a key component to their program. It will expand their current outreach considerably, with 3- to 7-day programs for larger groups of veterans than they can currently host.
Executive Director Barmore says, “Our mustangs will get more hands on experience with different people, which helps build their trust and confidence. Our foundation will benefit because our program, that we’ve carefully created, tested, and honed, will be put to use and we believe we’ll see transformational results. We believe the veterans will benefit the most from our program expanding to full-time. The whole program has been carefully designed with them in mind and with the goal of helping them transition from military to civilian life.”
You can’t talk about Camp Harris without talking about the man who started it all: Randall Harris. Harris, former president of Living Free Animal Sanctuary and the War Horse Creek Program, passed away in November 2020, and his loss is profoundly felt at Living Free. His commitment to serving veterans and abused wild mustangs left a legacy of healing and hope that will ensure lives are saved for many for years to come.
Randall knew it was always a dream of Living Free’s founder, Emily Jo Beard, to have horses included in their rescue program. Ray Barmore says that in 2014, “Randall came into my office and asked me, ‘Can we rescue mustangs?’ My answer was, ‘You bet we can!’” Together, Randall and Ray got to work and brought in the program’s very first mustang, Libby. (Learn more about Libby on page 55.)
“Our original idea was to rescue the mustangs, gentle them and adopt them out. Then Randall discovered there was a suicide cluster in his old unit at the Twentynine Palms Marine Base,” explains Ray. That’s when it all came together—Randall was deeply concerned about the challenges facing veterans today, and the idea for War Horse Creek was born.
“The convincing moment was the first time Pasadena City College came up to volunteer at Living Free,” Ray says. “They worked in the morning and, as an afterthought, we went down to the horses and just did some grooming, round pen, and rope work. We were blown away! Big smiles and huge breakthroughs. As they were leaving, ‘Doc’ Martin turned to us and said, ‘I think you just might have saved a couple of lives today.’ That was it, that’s when War Horse Creek began.” Randall researched and developed the program to find the most effective ways to help prepare warfighters for the transition home, while saving wild mustangs in the process.
Randall, Ray, and many others worked tirelessly to fine-tune a program that they knew could make a significant impact in the lives of both veterans and mustangs. With the building of Camp Harris, they will carry on this incredible mission. Donors who contribute to the effort can expect their dollars to be spent in one of two ways. First, to build the physical facility and, second, to provide scholarships for the veterans. The War Horse Creek program has always been and always will be run at no cost to the participating veterans.
“We are asking for donations to help us build Camp Harris, the home base for veterans participating in our program,” Director Barmore says. “We need your help so that we can continue to create big smiles and even bigger breakthroughs.”
For more information on Camp Harris, War Horse Creek, and Living Free Animal Sanctuary, contact Ray Barmore, Executive Director of Living Free and War Horse Creek, at (951) 659-4687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Libby, War Horse Creek’s First Wild Mustang
When we rescued Libby in 2015, War Horse Creek was her last chance. She’d made four stops since being rounded up as a yearling. Her prior owner was kind to her and worked to get her over her fear, but ultimately couldn’t keep her. Libby was at risk of being returned to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and likely considered a “three-strike” mustang, not eligible for re-adoption. These horses often languish in BLM long-term holding facilities or are sold to a livestock dealer.
Our Mustang Rescue was still in its planning stages, but we decided to take a chance on Libby anyway. Libby’s prior owner was kind to Libby, but before that she had evidently endured harsh treatment. She was very mistrustful, fearful, hyper-vigilant and reactive. Libby is a large horse, likely born of ancestors bred to pull caissons and artillery for the military.
Libby’s massive size can be intimidating. But after getting to know her, it is clear that Libby is a sensitive soul. Despite her 1,400 lb. weight, she is athletic, powerful and quick as a cat.
Calming Libby was the first priority. This required earning her trust. After a gradual, collaborative process under the guidance of our equine manager, Ray Barmore, Libby has gentled into an outstanding training companion for veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTS). She also seems to connect on a particularly deep level with female veterans who have worked with her.
Perhaps the connection comes from having endured traumatic experiences herself, and a kinship that is recognized. What we do know is that it works.
Connecting with a horse is a somatic experience which promotes awareness and releases the physical tension that remains in the aftermath of trauma. Veterans report that working with Libby has relieved them of a “weight” from an internal burden they didn’t even realize they’d been carrying. They feel more peaceful and relaxed after being in her presence. Many veterans report sleeping well after working with Libby. Insomnia is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress, and sleep is a key component to processing stress and trauma in a positive way. That alone has great benefits for veterans.
Working with veterans has helped Libby’s PTS symptoms, too. She has become less hyper-vigilant, less reactive, and less fearful of strangers. She is curious and engaged on the days veterans are here. She remains shy, requiring that her trust is earned by each individual she encounters, but the investment of time, patience, and understanding is well worth it.
Libby has bonded with our other horses and burros, and found her place in the herd. Her trust grows each day. Curiosity is gradually replacing her fear. It’s as if she understands that now she has a meaningful purpose that doesn’t require being under saddle, and is settling into her new role.
We took a chance on Libby and she has reciprocated in profound ways. We are blessed to have her at War Horse Creek, making a difference in the lives of veterans and their families.