By Sue Finley
They'll run the Belmont Stakes next Saturday, and as we lead up to the event, there will be more conversation about all of the unpleasant things we've been talking about lately: syringes in barns, drugs and bans, guilt or innocence, crime and punishment. We'll be asked to justify our existence, the necessity of our sport and our livelihood. What purpose do we really serve, anyway, they'll ask?
Like everyone else in the sport, I think we serve a purpose. But I also think we have the potential to serve a far greater one.
We all came to horse racing in one of a few ways: our families were in it, we rode as children, or our parents or grandparents took us to the track as kids. I'm in the latter group.
When my father came back from World War II, he settled in New England, met my mother, and spent a lot of time at the 17 different racing options in the region at the time. Just before the war as a teenager, he had ridden for his uncle who ran a few horses at the Colorado tracks, and later in life, he loved nothing more than going to the track with $10, betting every race, and coming home with $12-after gas and tolls, as he loved to say.
My father had a huge influence on my life. I studied French because he was a French teacher, and love horse racing because he loved horse racing. I'm proud of him, and even though I wouldn't consider myself a particularly patriotic person, I'm proud of his service.
But what I don't often say is that my father was one of the millions of combat veterans who came home from war with post-traumatic stress, or PTSD. Somehow, saying my dad had PTSD, in light of how we view the disorder after Vietnam and more than 20 years of war in the Middle East, seems disloyal. It paints a portrait of someone who was angry, abusive, violent, dark or troubled. He was nothing of the sort.
My father was smart. He was kind. He loved his wife and children, and in 30 years, he only took two sick days from work, because he thought showing up at work was the right thing to do, and he always did the right thing.
But he was also a former POW, and the survivor of a terrifying, traumatic and deadly friendly fire incident. And for the rest of his life, he sprang from bed fully alert at the slightest sound. He woke up screaming with nightmares on days when someone had brought up the war. When we were in the car, he drove as if the other cars were the enemy, jerking our car so violently away from anyone that came anywhere close as to make us constantly worry we'd have an accident.
PTSD didn't have a name back when I was a kid. When he was granted an honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, they called it a “nervous condition” and gave him a small lifetime pension due to the trauma he had experienced. When he died 60 years after war, he was still suffering from the effects. There wasn't a lot of help for PTSD back then–and the truth is, there's not a lot of help now–and so, like so many others, he just came home, put his head down and did the best he could.
But I have to say that maybe he accepted that fate a little better than I can on his behalf. He wasn't drafted for the war; he volunteered, and he came back from Europe a different person, his family tells me. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky fellow who signed up for the National Guard. He was anxious. He was cautious.
Suffice it to say, the concept of equine-assisted therapy for PTSD has always interested me. And two years ago, I found myself at the Bergen Equestrian Center in Leonia, New Jersey to do a story on the Man O' War Project. At the time, they were in the midst of a three-year study pairing Thoroughbred racehorses with combat veterans in an eight-week program to measure the effects of equine-assisted therapy on post-traumatic stress. Racehorses are a lot like veterans; they start a short, intense career when they are young, they're focused on one goal, and sometimes, it can be a little bit frightening. And while this concept has been tried elsewhere, the difference this time around was that the program was being run under the guidance of the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, whose Department of Psychiatry is among the best in the world.
The protocol developed and tested by the Man O' War Project is designed to treat service veterans who have moderate to severe PTSD. It doesn't ask them to relive the trauma, or to talk about it. Like so many World War II veterans, my father didn't want to do so.
And so, this spring, when I heard Dr. Yuval Neria, a decorated Israeli war veteran and the Director of the PTSD Treatment and Research Program at The New York State Psychiatric Institute and one of the principal investigators of the Man O' War Project, say that his published study demonstrated that the program has now shown real promise at helping PTSD sufferers to “more fully enjoy their lives,” I could not help but think of my father, and wonder how it could have helped him to do so.
The study, “Neural changes following equine equine-assisted therapy (EAT) for posttraumatic stress disorder: A longitudinal multimodal imaging study,” is a first in EAT-PTSD research. And critically, the news that the treatment is effective offers hope in the midst of a mental health crisis among our armed forces.
In 2020, over 17 service veterans a day committed suicide in the United States, according to the Department of Veterans Administration, a rate three times higher than that found in the general public.
PTSD isn't a new phenomenon. In fact, it has been written about for as long as man has made war, which is to say forever. But the sad truth is that while we have invested billions in stealth bombers, drones, in the weapons of war, we really don't do our best for the people whose lives are forever affected by combat. Not even close.
Because of that, in 2017, racehorse owner Earle Mack, a former U.S. Ambassador to Finland and Army veteran, launched the Man O' War Project. His goal was to develop a scientifically validated protocol which could be replicated everywhere, and he largely funded it himself.
Three years later, the results from Mack's program are impressive.
“Through the Man O' War Project, we achieved things that nobody else was able to do before,” says Neria. “The big news is that EAT has positive effects on the brain's structure and function of PTSD patients who underwent this brief therapy.”
With the conclusion of the three-year clinical trial, the Columbia research team must now raise the money to further validate their findings through a randomized control study, with the goal of mainstreaming the therapy at equestrian facilities across the country.
The U.S. Census bureau estimates there are 18 million service veterans in the U.S. So if you look around a little bit harder at the races this weekend, the beautiful, majestic horses on the track aren't the only warriors you might see. And they're not the only ones who need a little bit of help when their initial careers are over.
Despite the challenges, we have all stayed in racing because we love the horses who stop our hearts with their grace and power. Along the way, we saw that there were less-desirable aspects of the sport, aspects we wouldn't want the public to see. But we're still here because we want to make things better.
What we can do? Donate. Get involved. Work together to see that this project is mainstreamed into our society. Because a completed Man O' War Project means a lot. It means an end to the lifetime of needless suffering I saw in my father. It means a dignified purpose for our own veterans of the racetrack. And critically, it could mean government funding for both purposes, ensuring a steady pipeline of purposeful second careers for our retirees.
But of course, it could also mean a whole lot more.
In the past few weeks, we've been called cruel. Inhumane. Dopers. Obsolete. A full embrace of the Man O' War project could mean the chance to stand up and say: `this is who we are: an industry of hard-working, caring people who have gotten together to not only ensure this solution for our own Thoroughbred veterans, but to help society solve a devastating problem that has existed for thousands of years.' This byproduct of our sport just might, in the end, be our salvation.
My father didn't have to go to war. He raised his hand, and said `I'll be first in line.' And while it would be a stretch to say it ruined his life, at the very least, he was never the same. That's a tale that's familiar to a lot of military families.
So, as an industry, on this Memorial Day weekend, let's raise our own hands and pledge to help. In the midst of everything–of everything they're saying about us–let's be the good guys for a change.
Wouldn't that be nice?
For more information, or to learn how you can help, go to www.mowproject.org.