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.
Author’s note: The United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group is commonly abbreviated as DEVGRU.
* CANTER Arizona is funding Devgru’s stay at the Horse Rhythm Foundation. Those wishing to donate to help defray costs are welcome to do so by contacting CANTER Arizona.
20 responses to “Military hands guide t’bred to aid veterans”
Please check out http://www.horserhythm.org Please call us if you have any questions at 602-688-7424
I did go over and check out your website. The many options you have for working with the horses is amazing. Your understanding of the needs of soldiers and first responders is first class. This is wonderful work you are doing. I find myself traveling through AZ from time to time. Would love to ring you up and arrange to stop by if that is possible. I just wish there were infinitely more programs such as yours out there.
Thank you everyone for all your wonderful responses. I want to clarify that Horse Rhythm Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit who DOES NOT charge veterans or first responders. They are made up of ALL volunteers. So all donations go back into the organization/horses and veterans/FR themselves. The sponsorship is to help feed and provide shelter. We are combat veterans, disabled veterans and first responders giving back to the same and their families. We find it important to understand the culture. Devgru has been an amazing asset to our program. We feel honored to have him and the other equine therapists in our group. To us he is a veteran and we hold him near and dear to our hearts. We also thank all the other organizations out there serving our men and woman who have served our country.
There is another program out there for vets. It too uses off the track thoroughbreds as therapy horses. The program is called Saratoga War Horse Foundation and there are 2 locations. It pairs a vet with a horse for a weekend with NO cost to the veteran. You can find information about this unique program at http://www.SaratogaWarHorse.com
As Devgru’s former owner (now owned by Canter) and founder of Canter Arizona I am gratified by your posts and interest in supporting this type of program. FYI Horse Rhythm Foundation is the only organization of this type to be approved by the VA in Arizona to conduct this therapy. Many of these vets still live in VA facilities and are vanned to the facility for therapy.
Canter Arizona has committed to sponsoring Devgru for one year at a cost of $5,000. I have committed to back-stopping that effort if necessary. There are currently 5 other horses in the program (no TBs) that have corporate sponsorship.
Therefore, if there is anyone among you that can spare even the smallest of contributions it would be absolutely appreciated on two fronts. First, of course it would help us continue with this program and secondly it would offer amazing moral support for all those involved in the program, both vets and therapists.
It’s a wonderful thing you do Dennis. No money right now but that should look up in the future and I’ll be able to send some funding.
I wish that the VA would contract with horse therapy organizations to help their servicemen and woman who suffer the effects from war. It would be a win/win for the horses and the veterans.
What a compelling suggestion ! Write to Barack Obama at The White House (for contact info see whitehouse.gov, where you may also e-mail him) about the V.A. Therapeutic (for both participants!) Horse Rescue idea. Ask all your horse~loving friends to write to him as well ~ have them tell THEIR friends (and on and on ~ GRASS ROOTS organizing truly can affect change !!) I have it on good authority if enough people write to POTUS about any given subject, he WILL get involved. Heat attracts attention. A figurative wildfire must gather heat and strength again, at GROUND LEVEL. To all my fellow horse~loving friends, get involved, give what you can … And Save The Life of a Horse ~ TODAY !!! With Love, David B. Magee
Well David I think I will start a campaign. My focus was on the VA where I got nowhere. I will include in my focus both President Obama and my senators and reps both state and federal. I truly do think this is the way to invest in a veteran’s return to a healthy future. There are a shameful amount of suicides that could be prevented by having a horse as a friend.
YES !! YOU GO GIRL !!! I’ll e~mail Barack myself and spread the word to try to get others to do the same. Horses can save human beings just as humans must save
these innocents …
You are SO right on all scores. T’his is SUCH a worthy cause.
Please keep me posted !
And all best wishes for success !!
I will certainly keep you updated. There are a lot of things to consider such as the availability of horse therapy orgs in various areas and their willingness to work with this project and a whole lot of etceteras.
Hi, Morgan ~ Don’t let the bureaucratic morass get you down. Just keep moving forward ! You have my deepest respect. Yours, David Magee
Thank you…from all angles.
I’ve kept watch on this boy from the time he was running, as I own and have raced one of his siblings, Rockinarz Recruit. He’s been fully retired and is currently rehabbing (again) after suspensory issues. I’ve also seen Devgru on Canter’s site and had hoped he would end up someplace great. Looks like he has! Having a son who recently came home after serving the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this story means a lot to me from both aspects (the man and the horse). Thank you for this story!
“Horse sense is the thing horses have which prevents them from betting on people.”
Horse with bad knee becomes therapy horse – LOVE IT!
Ah, yes… “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Winston Churchill
Thank you CANTER Arizona and Dennis Miller for sharing this wonderful story with Susan Salk and Off Track Thoroughbreds so everyone can see it. I would urge everyone to share on facebook and email to friends. The Aftercare of Thoroughbreds is an important mission and success stories like this one help the public see just how special thoroughbreds are in achieving new careers and helping people.
He is ONE HANDSOME BOY !!!!
Thanks for the wonderful work you are doing to save horses lives. I am a financial supporter. It moves the heart to see the social consciousness growing widely and exponentially, at long last. If you’re not already giving (however small the amount; whatever you might afford) to one of these truly loving groups you see on your right, I strongly urge you to do so. Skip that 2nd latte` (!!), get involved :
SAVE THE LIFE OF AN INNOCENT HORSE … TODAY !!!
Yours most sincerely, David Magee