Shay Warden spent much of the past five years doing his best to isolate himself.
There was the wife Warden lost after he came home from Iraq who told him he was acting like a “caveman,” and the building maintenance job that allowed him to retreat because he could work alone most of the time. At home, he’d shut himself in and drink, he said.
But at Mill Swamp Indian Horse Farm, Warden is out in the open, exposed under an open sky that was once full of threats. On a recent warm Friday he led Samson, a wild mustang, around a ring. The horse trailed behind him as Warden’s shoulders relaxed.
It’s been a long time since Warden could relax.
“I’m constantly on guard, having to watch my back,” said Warden, 28.
In Iraq, where he deployed with the Army’s Fort Hood, Texas-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from 2010 to 2011, Warden’s horse was a heavily armored multitheater vehicle made of steel. He said he went on more than 500 combat missions and survived an attack that later destroyed that vehicle, which he called his “safe spot.”
At Mill Swamp, Warden is one of several military veterans who, week by week, work on recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder by participating in an equine-therapy program offered to inpatients at the Hampton VA Medical Center. Veterans groom the horses and learn to lead them around the ring, a process that requires focusing on and building trust with the large animals.
Mill Swamp is a nonprofit owned by Isle of Wight County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Edwards and dedicated to saving wild Corolla mustangs from extinction. Horses at Mill Swamp were born either in the wild or within two generations of it and live in as natural an environment as possible, Edwards said.
He recently presided over a group of seven veterans gathered at the farm like a preacher leading his flock from the pulpit. He acknowledged their trauma and feelings of being misunderstood, on edge and no longer able to trust.
But prey animals, like the wild Outer Banks mustangs at the farm, are looking for security.
A horse needs a leader it trusts, Edwards told the veterans. To gain that trust takes confidence and the ability to rein in one’s emotions and actions.
“He’s got to know that, if it comes down to it, that I can protect him, that I’m a leader,” Edwards said.
Now in its fourth year, the equine component is the brainchild of Kay Kerr, a recreational therapist at the Hampton VA who owns a mustang she keeps at Mill Swamp.
Kerr said in an email that she felt veterans would be able to develop a special bond with the wild horses “because of the connection of living off the land” and similarities of being in combat and recovering from injury. She developed training modules for the equine program along with Kathleen Decker, a doctor at the Hampton VA.
About 125 veterans have participated in the program, spokeswoman Kenita Gordon said. The Hampton VA spent $2.5 million in fiscal 2016 on its mental health service, which includes the center’s overall PTSD program, she said.
Equine-assisted and other animal-therapy programs can offer a “soothing distraction” for PTSD sufferers, said David Cifu, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Virginia Commonwealth University. They also can act as an important complement to other therapies and treatments.
Cifu is also a senior traumatic brain injury specialist for the Veterans Health Administration, as well as a rehabilitation physician at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond.
“What you’ve done is shown them they can accomplish something, give them confidence, show them they can be in the real world … make them feel good,” Cifu said. “But then you still have to convert that positive energy into a functional task in the world.”
Cortez Mudd, 49, of Norfolk spent 10 years in the Navy working on aircraft carrier flight decks and in law enforcement. It was in this latter capacity that he responded to fatal wrecks outside the Hampton Roads Naval Support Activity, Northwest Annex in Chesapeake that long haunted him.
Mudd said he spent years self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to avoid thinking about the carnage. He went to the Hampton VA in April seeking treatment, where he learned he was suffering from PTSD, which he’d long thought was reserved for “guys who’d been on the battlefield, getting shot at.”
As he’s learning to live with his new sobriety, Mudd said, he’s found “some peace” from visiting the farm.
“Steve has educated us that the horses want to feel safe, as well as I do,” Mudd said. “I want to feel safe.”
The aggressiveness born of constant vigilance that Warden said helped gain him promotions in Iraq cost him in the civilian world.
It’s also what helped land him at the Hampton VA earlier this year after he was arrested for discharging a weapon inside a dwelling, he said. A South Carolina judge gave him the option of jail or a treatment program, Warden said.
He’s learned to ease up on his take-charge attitude and “share control with something that’s obviously way bigger than me.”
“I have to earn this animal’s trust,” Warden said. “It’s good practice for me.”