A Johnson County nonprofit pairs horses with veterans trying to get back in the civilian saddle
After serving in the Army Infantry in Kosovo and Iraq, Kansas City native Patrick Benson created a nonprofit teaching veterans and active military personnel how to work with horses and transition back to civilian life. The program is run out of a farm in Stillwell, Kansas.
Horses taught Patrick Benson to feel again after serving in the military, he shared. Now he extends that experience to his fellow combat veterans through a nonprofit based on a rural Johnson County farm.
“Working with challenging horses that are struggling with their purpose, too; to find direction; we needed the same thing,” Benson explained of the fit between horses and former service members.
In 2014 — with the help of Patricia and Andy Brown and their Stillwell, Kansas, farm, — Benson launched War Horses for Veterans, a nonprofit that helps veterans and active military personnel during their transition from combat to civilian life through immersive horse-related activities.
“You are able to push yourself out of your comfort zone, face those anxieties and those fears, and regain that sense of confidence in yourself,” Benson said. “It’s already there. It’s in there. We just bring it back up to the surface to work through some of the trauma and the struggles we have — especially things we faced (in the military) or even when we got out. We lose our tribe, our sense of purpose and direction.”
“Rebuilding some of those connections is a pretty magical thing.”
A person has to let go, he noted, when working with horses.
“You have to give in, be present, slow your heart rate down and let go of anything and everything you’ve got going on in your mind,” Benson continued. “You can only be there because that’s all they care about. That’s what you have to do if you want to achieve or connect or do what you’re looking to do with them.”
Horses are a mirror of your emotions and energy, he added.
“Remember they’re a flight animal, so if they feel threatened or any sense of danger, they’re taking off,” Benson said. “They’re not gonna sit there and fight. So you’ve got to really be present. You’ve got to let go. If you’re holding on to a lot of anxiety or a lot of tension lost, they can feel that. They’ve already got your number figured out.”
‘It saved their lives’
Benson — a Kansas City native — served in the Army Infantry from 1998 to 2004. His first deployment, he shared, was to Kosovo.
“I turned 20 years old in the mountains of Kosovo,” he recalled, “on a B-52 strike, right in front of me. So pretty amazing.”
In 2003, his unit was part of the initial invasion of Iraq.
“We had a lot of things going on that year,” he noted. “And unfortunately, there were some people that we worked with and friends that we lost.”
When he left the military in 2004, Benson continued, he went to work for John Lyons, who is a world-renowned horseman and clinician in Colorado.
“I pushed the military all deep down inside and most people didn’t even know I served,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to look back too much on it.”
After meeting some veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Benson learned the effect working with horses had on them.
“They flat-out told me it saved their lives,” he recalled.
Benson soon started teaching clinics for veterans, and once he met the Browns, the vision for War Horses for Veterans came to life, he shared. The first veteran completed the program in 2015. Two years later, the nonprofit was featured on the “Megyn Kelly Today” show.
“(The Browns) are incredibly gracious and big-hearted givers and provided the platform for us to be able to get the ball rolling,” he said.
Through the free, five-day program — aimed at holistic wellness, decompression, and performance optimization — veterans participate in individual coaching, horsemanship, farm work, and self care sessions, according to the nonprofit.
“You’ll see the progression of the individual,” Benson noted. “The horses are such an effective tool to really open the individual up because — as we always say — that makes them way more receptive to give and receive information. No one’s ever ridden a horse before, and by the end of the week, they’re doing what most people would take a year to do.”
In 2018, War Horses for Veterans added a program for veterans and active duty members of the Special Operations Forces.
“We have a whole-person approach but we’re doing it at an elite level,” he explained. “When you marry that with horses and driven, authentic individuals in a great culture, anything’s possible. It’s amazing what’s been happening.”
And during the pandemic, they also added a program for first responders, Benson said.
“We did a lot of one-day workshops; their schedules are very difficult,” he continued. “Just even being able to provide a place for them to decompress and connect and even use it for peer support, that was a really important start because there weren’t really a lot of things like that for first responders, especially in Kansas City.”