Mr. Bad Deal turned a disfigured head to study the situation.
Looking for all the word like an old vet whose battle scars had faded with the passage of time, he focused his only good eye on the woman who spoke softly to him. His right eye socket, where his other eye should have been, was a crater in a facial moonscape, gaping empty and dark.
But as he heard the sound of a kind voice, his ears pricked forward, and quickly, Mr. Bad Deal showed he understood: he was among a friend, no enemy loomed.
Mr. Bad Deal
Sire: Prospect North
Dam: Unstoppable, by Stop the Music
Foal date: April 3, 2000Turning himself fully around, he shuffled on his large, painful left knee to join up with Julie Baker of Healing Arenas, Inc., of Escalon, Calif., in a moment of trust among sentient beings that would eventually include a circle of war veterans still suffering from their own external and internal wounds.
Five months ago, before he was to take an integral position in a pilot program aimed at helping war veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Baker and Mr. Bad Deal came to a meeting of the minds. In those intimate moments, with the protection of the herd horses stripped away from him, and Baker herself vulnerable to the whims and nature of a flight animal, the two formed a trust alliance.
“I was on his right side, where he has no eye, and had been really encouraging him to join up with me. He kept trying to stop and look at me, and I could see he was trying to figure out what I wanted him to do,” Baker recalls. “I was trying to encourage him with my voice and finally he stopped. And when he turned to look around at me, I knew he understood. He knew he didn’t have to be insecure because I was taking a leadership role, and I was telling him everything was going to be OK now.”
This transaction of trust took place in April, a mere four months after Baker wandered into a herd of 35 retired racehorses in a pasture at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Kansas facility. And after searching for the perfect horse to interact with veterans, led Mr. Bad Deal out of a field where he had learned to hold his ground among other equines; other strong and perfectly sighted horses.
A horse who can overcome disabilities in vision, is capable of sending a powerful message of reassurance to veterans still fighting their own wars, Baker says. “When they look at a horse like Mr. Bad Deal and see he is fine, it helps them to understand on some level that they’re going to be fine too,” she says.
So, on Sept. 18, Mr. Bad Deal, with little time in training for this new position in life, found himself surrounded by veterans who had endured and suffered so much, both during and after battle.
They joined the OTTB in a sand arena at the farm as part of an inaugural program called Stable Survivors.
Six traumatized veterans who had served in wars ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, were referred to the program by the Veteran’s Administration to work with several horses, including Mr. Bad Deal. They were given strict instructions to not approach the one-eyed horse first, but let him come to them, if he chose.
Without hesitation Mr. Bad Deal made a beeline for the group, Baker says, noting, “At one point there was a female veteran sitting on the ground. He walked right over to her and stuck his head onto her lap. It was a great moment.”
At another point in the hour-long therapeutic session, veterans surrounded the gelding, some even standing on his bad side. And not only did he tolerate their attention, he loved it, she says.
In the weeks to come, Mr. Bad Deal will continue to work with the inaugural group of veterans, and when the course concludes, a purple ribbon, which he wears to indicate his beginner status, will be ceremoniously removed, ushering him in to the ranks of therapy horses working at Healing Arenas, Inc.
“Even though he was retired out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of horses, he is now a horse with a purpose,” says Baker. A horse with a purpose, if not a calling.