Arm and arm they walked toward the horse.
The blinded Iraq War veteran extended his arm and on faith accompanied Vicki Dryer down the barn aisle, his seeing-eye dog trailing close behind.
In a moment the pair, both shattered by war, stood at the door of ex-racehorse Devgru, a fine racehorse who’d weathered his own storms.
But on this day the animal, who was almost euthanized during a prolonged recovery from knee-chip surgery, stood soundly. Able bodied he reported for duty April 4 to enter his second career as therapy horse for veterans and first responders.
From his stall at the Phoenix-based Horse Rhythm Foundation the bay Thoroughbred stood at the nexus of lives affected by military service.
Sire: Our New Recruit
Dam: Grand Dance, by Grand Slam
Foal date: Jan. 21, 2009The horse himself had passed from caring military hands to those affected by military service. In fact, it was a collaboration between his owner, Army veteran and CANTER Arizona founder Dennis Miller, and Dryer, mother of a fallen soldier, that put Devgru on a career path helping veterans.
“I look at things in life, like this horse, and the way things just seem to come full circle” and marvel, says Miller, who served in Army intelligence in the late 60s.
After Devgru ran a modestly successful campaign for Miller, the horseman put considerable resources into surgery and rehab for the injured animal.
After enough knee chips and cartilage to fill a three-and-a-half-inch vial was removed during surgery, the gelding began a months long recovery that was touch and go.
“While the surgery was successful, it revealed that his injury was more extensive than expected, with numerous bone chips in both his upper and lower knee,” he says. “And rehabilitation was not without setbacks. Time and again Devgru appeared to be progressing enough to be turned out, only to limp back, sore and swollen. There was even a time the CANTER board discussed the possibility of euthanasia.”
All he needed was time.
And when he became sound again on all four feet, Devgru was handed off to Vicki Dryer, whose life had been interrupted by grief.
In 2011, her son, Pfc. John Corey Johnson was killed in Afghanistan, and she shrank into a self-protective shell.
“Before my son was killed, I’d worked in the Thoroughbred business for 25 years,” she says. “I did everything. I exercised horses, I broke them, and my son and I had a lot of great memories of the track.”
With him gone, she was unable to return to the track, and even had trouble getting out of the house.
But the opportunity to re-train Devgru came along at nearly the same moment that Dryer began looking for project horses. Miller sent Devgru to Dryer’s facility, Bit O Luck Farm, and from their first moments together, a spark rekindled.
“The first time I rode him, I allowed myself to open up to him,” she says. He made her laugh. He focused her attention on his quirks; he distracted her from grief.
“One day I put a tarp in his round pen,” she says. “Before I could even start training, he was playing with it. He had that thing up on his head, over his back, and was pulling on it—it even brushed his belly. I couldn’t believe it.”
When she realized what a good horse she had, she contacted Horse Rhythm Foundation, and set up an appointment for Devgru. And she began a certification process to qualify herself to work or volunteer with the program helping veterans.
Everything—Dryer’s struggle and Devgru’s —came full circle earlier this month.
While shadowing a therapy session involving the blinded Iraq veteran and another horse, Dryer was emboldened to approach the wounded soldier.
She asked the man if she could introduce him to Devgru.
“As we were walking he stopped and turned to me to ask if I was the Gold Star mom he’d heard about, and I said that I was, and he started to cry,” she says, explaining her title is a military honor given mothers who lose a son or daughter in battle.
They walked the short distance to Devgru’s stall, where the quiet of the barn offered respite.
And reaching Devgru, tears pricked her eyes as she watched the handsome gelding touch his warm, soft muzzle to the soldier’s chest and blow his warm breath across his hand.
Slowly, so slowly, he lingered near the blind man, joining the unlikely trio in a small moment of peace, a sort of victory over the heartache they’d each suffered.
“Devgru held his head over him and breathed all over him. And then he breathed all over the dog”
“It was magic,” Dryer says.