By Diana Pikulski
Saratoga War Horse (SWH) recently celebrated 1000 participants in its healing program using off-track Thoroughbreds to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Late last year, SWH began having regular programs in New York at the Rerun Thoroughbred Adoption farm in East Greenbush. Now operating in three states, New York, Maryland and South Carolina, under the guidance of Executive Director Allison Cherkosly, SWH is aiming to serve the next 1000 veterans in three years time. I caught up with Cherkosly just after her one year anniversary on the job and as she plans for a busy Saratoga racing season.
DP: What is your background and how did you come to this position at SWH?
AC: I am an army veteran. I served in Afghanistan from 2009-2010. I was also a competitive equestrian and I was trained in the Monty Roberts method of horsemanship.
I just happened to meet some of the board of directors of SWH at a time when they were looking for an executive director. When they heard my background and I learned more about the program, it was synergy. It ended up being a perfect partnership. I married my two passions: veterans and animals.
DP: Did you go through the program yourself?
AC: After I started the job, I did go through both the South Carolina program and the New York program.
DP: Looking back on your first full year, what do you feel you been able to bring to the program?
AC: I am most proud of how I have poised SWH for the near and long-term future. In that, I mean the organization going from a smaller more localized charity to a larger nationwide organization. It is my goal that when people hear the term post traumatic distress, they will automatically say: “Go to Saratoga War Horse.” In order to accomplish that, I have addressed every aspect of the organization from fundraising, to financial, to our infrastructure. My work has been geared towards preparing for the future while still providing great programming. We have focused heavily on the staff and making sure that we have the best possible people to provide the program and grow the organization. Being a veteran myself, I knew the kind of changes that were necessary.
DP: Can you give me a specific instance?
AC: We want to always be sure that we are putting the veterans first. To accomplish this, we didn't change the program itself, but rather the accessibility. As of the end of this week, we will have served all 50 states. That is a huge accomplishment because many of the vets are coming from places where there are no resources to serve veterans. It is truly a team effort. I am sandwiched between a fabulous board and amazing staff. Everyone is singularly focused on the mission and serving the most veterans in the best way.
DP: On the website, there are many upcoming classes listed. Is that a new phenomenon?
AC: The new phenomenon is that every class is full. However, that does not mean that veterans are waiting. We open up new classes wherever possible to meet the demand which is overwhelming.
DP: What constitutes a full class and how many horses do you use?
AC: Ninety-nine percent of the time, six is a full class. If we must, we can go to seven. Five works but six is optimal. We use anywhere from four to six horses per class. You can use the same horse more than once because the connections are all completely different. All horses are retired Thoroughbred racehorses.
DP: How does working with off-track Thoroughbreds contribute to the process?
AC: Other breeds of horses may be calm, more willing to stand and be rubbed on and nuzzle. They may be faster and easier at creating a bond. But just bonding is not what we are looking to accomplish at SWH. We are looking for the chemical reaction that happens with the connection between the veteran and the horse in the round pen. The Thoroughbred acts as the catalyst. The similarities between the veterans and racehorses are also important. Thoroughbreds, like veterans, are trained intensely for a single result. Thoroughbreds are trained to go fast and win. Men and women in the military are trained to complete their mission. They both enter their training at a young age and retire young and both have a full of life yet to live. They are both dealing with the after-effects of their careers and they can help each other through the transition and the changes that they are feeling.
DP: Describe how the program unfolds for a veteran in attendance.
AC: All expenses are covered by SWH. We take care of everything and that is an important part of the experience to help the veterans feel secure. On day one, we gather up the participants and transport them to the hotel. We introduce everyone and have a group dinner. Everything is geared towards creating a safe, comfortable and confidential environment. On day two, there is a farm tour and then a two-part interactive classroom session. The first part is about equine communication, horses in general, and about the herd environment. They watch videos and learn to identify the leaders in the herd and the interactions between horses. Then, in the second part, the veterans are taught about the round pen and learn about what they will be doing in the round pen with their horse. After lunch, they learn, without horses, how to use a rope effectively and they practice their rope skills. We do a simulation of the round pen experience with a person playing the part of the horse. We teach them about all the different possible scenarios that they could face in the round pen. For instance, they learn how the horse will move away if they stand perpendicular to the horse and how to use their body to get the desired result.
DP: Can you explain how the connection with the horse in the round pen happens?
AC: The situation of being in the round pen with the horse is one that will trigger the anxiety and stress responses associated with PTSD. Unless the veteran can take down their energy level and make it through the situation with the tools we give them, they won't connect with the horse. The veteran wants to make the horse willingly come over to him or her and connect. The horses are not trained to make the connection automatically. They only react. So the veteran needs to learn how to control their energy and the flood of reactions coming from their brain and body and focus on not being a predator. It can take anywhere from three to 30 minutes.
DP: Does the connection in the round pen help veterans to manage their PTSD?
AC: What happens in the round pen is as much physiological as it is emotional. You have to get in the mind set of a veteran who comes to us. Imagine a scenario when you are driving your car and the car in front of you suddenly stops. In that one or two seconds before avoiding an accident, there are slew of physiological reactions such as having your heart rate spike, loss of breath, a pit in your stomach, and an adrenaline rush of because of survival mode. For people without PTSD, if you wait a bit, the symptoms go away. Vets with PTSD are in almost constant survival mode. It's devastating. They are existing in a constant series of those one second before you crash increments of hyper-vigilance and hyper arousal so that they can't focus on normal life and family matters. While the connection can take three minutes or 30 minutes, the result triggers a chemical relaxation response. That is why it is often so emotional. For the first time in a long time the veteran knows what it's like to not be living in those one second increments. It doesn't mean that their life is perfect all of sudden but they experience the tools to learn to help themselves.
DP: In the next article, we will be speaking with some of the vets who have gone through the program. For today, let's finish up with your upcoming fundraising campaign and gala in Saratoga. Give us an overview.
AC: Last year we celebrated the milestone of serving the first 1000 veterans in the organization's first six years of existence. My single focus is on serving the next 1000 veterans with the same quality and impactful program in half the time. There are 500,000 veterans in this country with some sort of PTSD. The campaign will be called One Thousand More. It will include an endowment campaign to insure that we be here for the next batch of veterans needing our help. Our gala this year, honoring Cot Campbell, is themed Celebrating a Visionary: Cot Campbell. It will be held on Monday, Aug. 12 at the Hall of Springs in Saratoga. Cot and Anne have been our biggest supporters and brought SWH to the people in Thoroughbred racing who support us. For that, we are forever grateful. In addition, Cot was a WWII navy vet. He, more than anyone, understood the connection between veterans and off-track Thoroughbreds.
DP: Can we expect anything new and different at the event?
AC: The event will be unique this year. With the help of some really key partners, guests will be invited to experience an immersive 3-D interactive exhibit in which they will travel with a veteran from enlistment through training, service and deployment to the time when they come home. Guests will also follow a racehorse through training, racing and retirement. The SWH program occurs at the intersection of the two lives as they are transitioning to a new chapter. At the end, we think guests will say: “I know now what SWH does. I feel emotionally connected to it and I want to support it.”
DP: How can people support the event?
AC: People can support the event by sponsoring and by attending the event. It will be a big event. About 60% of the tickets are sold and the invitations have not yet gone out. The amount of support coming in to honor Cot and Anne is amazing. The event will highlight Cot's remarkable life, service and career.
To learn more about the event, go to https://www.saratogawarhorse.org/2019-gala.
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.