UC Davis student and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edgar Garcia brushed the hair along a horse’s neck, back and sides. Here, grooming was more than preparation for riding — it was an age-old ritual bonding human and horse in trust and care.
Garcia is one of the early participants in a new program that pairs student veterans with horses to help them get involved in campus life and enjoy much needed relaxation.
“Horses make you forget about everything,” said the senior majoring in evolutionary anthropology. “I was so relaxed.”
UC Davis is introducing the Hooves for Heroes program this month following a brief trial last fall. After attending four weekly lessons on horse handling to begin this Thursday (Jan. 11), a veteran will be able to spend time independently with a horse. The animal gets extra grooming and can graze on a lead outside the paddocks. Each enjoys the other’s companionship.
Meg Drescher, a coordinator at the Equestrian Center, said Campus Recreation and Unions and the university’s Veterans Success Center are teaming up to offer the program. She said horses are increasingly being used to foster mental and emotional health for veterans.
“It’s good for people to get to spend time with animals and horses,” she said. “It’s not just physical wellness — it’s whole-being wellness.”
The new program will be held at the 25-acre campus Equestrian Center, which offers horse boarding, riding lessons and equestrian team activities. Students experienced in horsemanship will do the teaching, and the veterans’ partners will be good-natured lesson horses, some on loan from a summer riding camp.
Challenges for veteran students
Garcia offered insights about the challenges veteran students face. He drew on his own experience as a veteran who was an aviation mechanic in the Marine Corps for eight years and his roles as president of the Davis Student Veteran Organization and as a student adviser at the veterans center.
The 31-year-old — who worked as a security executive and earned two associate degrees before transferring to UC Davis — said veterans might have trouble transitioning to academic life, or feel out of place among mostly younger classmates and those who have different perspectives about the military. Veterans might also be coping with other issues such as brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘It’s a peace’
One of about 200 veterans enrolled at UC Davis, J. Alota is studying for a master’s degree in health informatics after 22 years and five deployments with the Air Force left him unable to meet the strenuous physical demands of his former nursing career.
He also copes with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, he said, and enjoyed brushing and talking to the horses in the fall trial.
“It feels like there is nothing else going on in the world but me and the horse.” he said. “It’s a peace.”
Hooves for Heroes is akin to the equestrian facility’s long-established Guardian Angels program that trains campus and community volunteers to spend time with horses.