How a Horse Helped Healed a Man
Could a horse be an Ambassador of Peace? Could he communicate to a whole herd of rescue horses that they are safe? Yes, if that horse is an Ambassador of Peace.
Such a being can communicate without words, in the "Language of Horse" across vast distances. One such horse is a mustang named Sidewinder, who has had an amazing journey.
And now this wild mustang is just beginning his next one as a Therapy Horse for veterans and anyone who wants to heal their soul.
Sidewinder began his life as part of a wild mustang herd in South Dakota. He came from the wild side of the mountain that was part of The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary which was started in 1988 and had 11,000 acres. They soon realized that Sidewinder had a unique talent -- helping younger or anxious horses to settle down and feel safe in the sanctuary. They knew that Sidewinder had a special destiny -- and that he needed to help others.
That's when Afton Whitmer got the call, "We want to give you this horse."
Small problem -- Afton lived in Arizona and couldn't leave his ranch and horses behind to make the trip. It would take a miracle. Fortunately, one was coming. But first, Sidewinder would make the 28-hour journey to Valley View Equine Rescue in King City, California where he stayed for a few months. They observed that he was the confident and gentle peacemaker in the new herd.
Afton had also been on a long personal journey. After ten years he returned from Iraq and Afghanistan to the ranch he grew up on. "All I wanted was to live the rest of my life in peace," he said. But he had read some articles about wild mustangs and horse slaughter, and it opened something in his heart and mind. The horses began speaking to him. He heard the words in his head, "Save me! Give me a home!" These weren’t spoken English words, but it seemed like the horses were communicating a message he couldn't ignore. "I could hear horses talking to me. This feeling would be so intense that it would wake me up in the middle of the night with the sound of horse’s screams of anguish, pain, and loneliness."
The message got him to work. He started rebuilding the old corrals on the ranch where he had grown up. He wasn't really sure what would happen next – but the horses just started coming. First one, then another, and another. He would get calls about mustangs that just couldn’t be gentled, or were injured and could never be ridden. They needed a home, or they would go to slaughter. The next thing he knew he had twenty horses. Injured ones, very old ones, wild ones. Some with such severe anxiety of humans they couldn't be touched. He gave them all a home. "I love them all, no matter what they do. My travels around the world and the horses had changed my life, turning my focus to compassion for animals. I call my place The Wild Horse Haven Rescue."
I recently went to visit Afton at his ranch, and we talked about how horses can help heal people with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. This is what The Human-Animal Connection does. I assured him he wasn't crazy for listening to horses and letting them lead him. I know from my work with horses and people that if you open your heart deeply to a horse, they will lead you to heal. Afton knew it was time to turn his rescue work with animals into healing work with people. He could feel he was being led to something really big.
And big he was. Sidewinder is not just physically big (at about 15 hands) but in his spirit. Although Afton had never met anyone from The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, they knew he was meant to be Afton's horse.
And Marlene Dodge from Valley View Equine Rescue, where Sidewinder had been staying for a few months described this four-year-old mustang as an "Ambassador of Peace and an Emissary of the mustangs" because of his power to soothe the other horses there.
After six months, since the first call and offer to give him Sidewinder, a miracle came in the form of Marlene getting a call to pick up four horses in Arizona. Although she almost never comes near Safford Arizona where Afton lives, she said she would drive Sidewinder the thirteen hours to his ranch. The timing of Sidewinder's coming was also a miracle as a recent family tragedy made Afton realize it was time to do more.
It was time to open his ranch and the horses (and other animals there) to people who needed to heal their soul. The gift of the arrival of Sidewinder was the perfect sign that he had made the right decision to go in this direction. Sidewinder would be the perfect partner for this new step in the journey of healing.
"Although I feel all the twenty horses at Wild Horse Haven Rescue are family, I don't feel they are "my" personal horses. They are their own spirits, Afton said. But it seemed that everyone knew that Sidewinder was going to be his horse. His ambassador and guide back to peace.
When Sidewinder first got here – it was as if he knew he was home. Even after the two-day drive, he just calmly walked out of the trailer -- he knew exactly that this is where his destiny lay. "Most of my experience with mustangs when they get here is they either stay in the trailer and take their time getting out, or they burst out of the trailer. Either way, it is because they are confused and scared. I never force or prod them out of a trailer. I let it be their choice. They have had their ability to choose taken away from them so many times, and I try to give some of that back to them here. It was pretty amazing to watch how confident and peaceful Sidewinder was from the first moment he arrived."
He wasn't the only one watching. All of the other horses came up to the corral to meet him that first day, with nickers and nuzzles and lots of curiosity from the herd.
After letting him settle in for a couple of days, he was turned out with two of his other horses, Sirroco and Rowdy. Sirroco and Sidewinder met and connected, nuzzled, and Afton knew they were good.
Rowdy, on the other hand, lived up to his name and postured and reared up, but Sidewinder stood his ground with him. He didn't run away but held his space as if to say, "I'm not scared of you, and we are going to live together in peace."
And that is how they worked it out.
One of Afton's other horses, a small mare named Tuffy, was a mustang who was born with hip deformities and crooked back legs. She could never be ridden, "She was a very sweet soul. But she had to be in her own coral otherwise she would get pushed around by more dominant horses. I always wanted to find the right horse partner for her, who was gentle and kind."
"Tuffy let me know how she felt -- she had been watching Sidewinder over the fence. She wanted to know him." She seemed to instantly know that he was a kindred spirit and that they were about to become best friends.
So he turned Tuffy out with Sidewinder, and the care and love that he showed his new friend are healing just to watch. They will remain together, for the rest of their lives.
Sidewinder's story is a great reminder of how every animal is unique. Each has his or her own destiny. Our job is to pay attention to that. As Afton said, "I knew right away that not only was Sidewinder going to be my partner in peace, but he was going to be a great Therapy Horse. He is terrific with kids, and vets, and anyone who wants to calm their soul."
Sidewinder gets lots of love and grooming and Afton always talks to him every day. "He is a very good listener!" Sidewinder seems to know that he has a special mission – being an Ambassador of Peace.
As Marlene said, "Sidewinder is a great representative for what a wild mustang can be if given the chance. His presence lends itself to peace, gentleness, and forgiveness."
The world needs to know that there are more Sidewinders out there. We just need to recognize them.
Sidewinder's story told to Genie Joseph by Afton Whitmer
The Human-Animal Connection is going to collaborate with Afton at Wild Horse Haven Rescue. We will be bringing veterans and active duty to experience the power of opening your heart to animals and how to connect with them at the most respectful and deepest level. We will post new updates soon, so stay tuned. Please make sure you sign up for the free Human-Animal Connection newsletter so you won't miss any wonderful stories.
Here is a two-minute video about our program:
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection
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