Thursday, January 7, 2016

Horses for Heroes: Rick Iannucci

Horses For Heroes: A cowboy’s commitment
An interview with Rick Iannucci: Horses For Heroes Cowboy Up!
Rick at the gate.

Rick Iannucci is the Executive Director of Horses For Heroes-NM, an independent New Mexico based ranch that facilitates ‘Cowboy Up!’ a unique horsemanship skill-set restructuring program free to all men and women who are post 9/11 Veterans and active military. Along with his wife and Assistant Director, Nancy De Santis, Rick exemplifies the term ‘working cowboy’ – not only in the saddle, but on the ground, helping others learn the cowboy way.

As a retired U.S. Marshal, former Green Beret, West Point instructor,  rancher, award-winning humanitarian,  father, grandfather and much more, Rick is a cowboy. He lives the cowboy lifestyle and exemplifies the cowboy code. Despite his Seminary degree he insists he is not a counselor but a comrade, horseman, mentor and friend; a person who sees horses as an extension of ourselves and that every horse can be a guide to wellness and healing.

G - Thanks for connecting!
R – My pleasure! Anyone who is willing to stretch out as we have and put Proverbs or Psalms on their masthead as you have always deserves to have a  good conversation.

G – Amen. I am looking at your website and it says ‘We got your 6’. I don’t know what that means...
R – That’s a military expression Gina. It means ‘We’ve got your back.’ When you are giving military coordinates it’s a way to identify where the enemy is. I’m a former Special Forces guy – you say ‘Where’s the enemy?’ He’s at your 12 o’clock, he’s at your 3 o’clock, he’s at your 6 o’clock. He’s coming in from behind you. You need somebody behind you who has got your 6. In other words, ‘I got your back.’ It’s military jargon just as ‘cowboy up’ is. Like ‘come on guys we’ve got to cowboy up, we’ve got to get moving.’ 

G – Is Horses For Heroes your brainstorm?
R – Cowboy Up! was our brainstorm. When we first got involved, this was actually an off-shoot of a County 4-H Ranch Rodeo program we were running when I retired in 2005. As it developed, around 2007, we had a gal with the old North American Handicap Riding Association (it doesn’t exist anymore) give me a call and said she had some wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and could we work with them. At the time, the guy who was the Director of Veteran Services in New Mexico wanted to put something together for veterans, especially the combat wounded and  with PTSD  and this  gal wanted to get the soldiers riding. I said “sure”.  She said that I was the only ex-Green Beret cowboy she knew and she wanted to bring them out to our place. At the time she was working with autistic and special needs kids, and she didn’t know the foggiest thing about veterans,  how to deal  or even talk with them. She recognized early on that it demanded a different kind of program. She admitted to us that part of the problem with some of the other horse programs, including hers, was that they were trying to shoehorn veterans needs and veterans issues into programs designed for a totally different individual and with totally different needs.

Most folks at the time did not have a concept of what PTSD was all about. You can see on our website where we have really drilled down on it and actually dissected PTSD to something that addresses– the other side of it, which we have identified as post traumatic spiritual dissonance and which we have been working with as we deal with any and all the other issues we can identify.
I have talked to hundreds of veterans all over the country who have been in different programs and they tell me that most leave them a little flat. They appreciate the kind gesture; but the kind gesture was not always very helpful and in some cases did more harm than help. That’s why I spent a lot of time developing a top notch National Advisory Board that I could rely on to consult with on issues that would arise. Among the other stellar individuals our Board includes Dana Bowman, the first double-amputee who went back to active duty. Dana Bowman, was a former Green Beret and US Army Golden Knight Parachute Team member.  We also have Master Sgt. Leroy Petry, an Army Ranger  and Medal of Honor Recipient from Santa Fe who lost an arm in Afghanistan also working with us. We spend a lot of time with Dr. Gerald Valentine MD, Yale University School of Medicine making sure we have sound science behind what we are doing and that we are on the right track and everything we are doing continues to be spot on as a healing program.

The concept of skill set restructuring, essentially  Cowboy Up!, is that we take military skills and instead of like most other folks sidestepping or going around them, our concept includes and is a template for our program. The VA (Veterans Administration) would sometimes say to these guys and gals, “Well, just forget about what you did in the military” or they would do exposure therapy and other kinds of treatment modalities that our guys and gals said were kind of spooky and ineffective for them. All I would say is, “Hey, what was the last good thing you remembered you knew how to do before you got blown up?” - especially to my infantrymen and Marines.  They would tell me, “I was on a combat patrol, leading my team and we hit an IED (improvised explosive device), and the next thing I remember was waking up in Landshtull Army Hospital in Germany on a stretcher.”

I tell them that their military skills are still valuable and then ask them to remember their military training and things like  “Fields of Fire” and other combat patrolling procedures, and they would say “Oh, yeah!”  Then I tell them that we are going to teach them to move cattle t using all the same skills and they’ll look at us like, “Uh?” So, first we start them on the ground in the roundpen and then we follow up with American Horsemanship.  For many of them it’s an iconic type of thing when they start working with us. “Gosh, darn”, most of them say, “I always wanted to be a cowboy.”

With something to shoot for, we designed a program that has three key components that are essential to what we do. The first is that all learning and tasks are self paced with no time limits. Second, everything is objective or outcome based and we do our training in small digestible increments. You can tell that they have chewed it, ate it, swallowed it, and that they “get it”. The third part that is very unique is that everything that we do is analogous to a military skill set. For instance, centered riding or guys who are trying to keep the reins straight or are hanging on the reins, and to go from point A to point B. Well, what was the concept in the military? It was “bounding overwatch” essentially not leaving a covered position until you have identified your next covered position, so you can see and follow and go to that next position. We use all these previously learned skills and in this case this one forces them to keep their heads up, reinforces a good seat and let’s horse and rider track in the right direction.

As a result of this kind of training, several great things happen; one of them being training time is cut way down. The guys and the gals snap in quicker, and using language and terminology they are familiar with they start picking things up a lot easier. It’s still a work in progress though. Each of the guys who come to us has a different set of skills or a different military occupational specialty or “MOS”. They are always bringing new things to us and building on our “glossary of now reworked military/cowboy terms.

We are self-sustainable because we don’t need to go outside our own organization for volunteer instructors. Our own veterans staff the program. Essentially, you are only a student here once and then after that you are an assistant instructor!  With a fellow veteran as their mentor they move from the ground up and are hands on with our horses from the very first day, beginning with grooming. Grooming is almost like a tea ceremony for us. It’s very soothing, calming. They develop a connection with the horse starting there. There’s no hurry. No rush. All of these elements tie together to make this a very interesting comprehensive program. It takes every minute of the day and makes it most effective, especially when you are working with veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or physical injuries.

G. It can be intense at times, I can imagine.
R. Well, it can be, but it’s very fulfilling. It’s kind of like taking a piece of Scripture and sitting down and really ... I don’t know if you know what Lectio Divina the 4th century practice of taking scripture apart into real little bites, enjoy it, and digest it. And you say, “Oh, yeah, I see what it says about the olive tree for instance. That’s powerful or Holy smokes. Let me think about that for a little bit more.” You can be walking along and boom it’s meaning hits you again but now with clarity that you didn’t have before.

G. The horses are very spiritual, too.
R. Absolutely. We work with a lot of Native American’s and I am a regular presenter at the South West Native American Veterans Association Annual Conference, and they believe that horses are our connection between the spiritual world and the physical world. They say horses are put on earth to help bridge the connection. We have a long standing partnership with the Laguna Pueblo which we are truly blessed to have and where our veterans continue to learn and thrive. There is also a ranch that we helped start for one of our veteran program graduates on the Navajo Reservation. He has become a very successful cattleman and continues to be an important part of our program. His ranch is where our yearlings are until we bring them here to our place in Santa Fe from Easter until around Labor Day so our guys and gals can train on live cattle and really enhance their cowboy skills.

G. I believe that. Where do you get your horses for the program?
R. That is always a challenge, to get and keep great horses. I have bought some of the horses and some of the ones we now ride have been donated. We only use American Quarter Horse geldings. They are the best fit for the ranch work we do as well as our horsemanship training.

We are in the middle of ranch country here in Santa Fe County and have a unique relationship of program partners. Basically, the surrounding rancher/partners provide our guys and gals with learning opportunities especially during spring work and fall gathers and shipping and such. Through the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association of which I am a member, we made arrangements to work with area ranchers. It doesn’t cost the ranchers to help us. In return, we guarantee them that they would get solid guys and gals who love and respect the work, and know the cowboy way, and the cowboy code. We do all the ranch training up front– we bring our own cattle in and train riders with our cattle so that when we do get an invite to go to one of these ranches or big outfits for a working, and we go to many of them, we are prepared. We get to as many as we can schedule because the hands on learning at this point is essential to validate the many hours the veterans spend training.  In the fall we gather remnants (cattle that were missed during earlier gathers). We are actually gathering remnants today. That is an opportunity that presented itself and we had the crew of veterans ready to take advantage of it. It is a win-win for us and the rancher too as not only do we assist in completing the work but we develop a sense of community as well.  

In a way, Veterans come here to the Crossed Arrows Ranch for “basic training” or Cowboy 101 so to speak and most all of them start embracing the western lifestyle and the cowboy culture.  With a new mission such as they get here at the ranch, they are able to rewrite their own narrative; it really works toward the neuroplasticity and ultimately a sustainable healing. They can replace some of the things that have happened to them and rewrite that narrative with the new things that are happening to them here on the ranch. That was one of the things that we found out early on and continue to address.

We also tell people that “we do not do therapeutic riding and we don’t sing Kumbaya”. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things but our attitude, mindset, philosophy and protocols are totally different; it is “skill-set restructuring” and is done in a different way as you probably can tell by now. We also embrace comradery, the kind that they enjoyed in the military and that is hard to find any where else.

 We also built a bunkhouse with a large great room for everybody. On our website scoot around and you can see photos of it. It is a safe place and a safe space that we have created. Our guys and gals tell us, if they go to another place for help, it’s 50 minutes on a horse, they get walked around on a lead line then “thank you very much, and we’ll see you next Wednesday” and that’s it. In our program, it’s “ tie your horses up and loosen your cinches, lunch is almost ready. Let’s sit down, pray and eat.” Then we discuss what happened that day. There are no whining sessions; it’s all just good comradery. We see things that happen here that are absolutely amazing. You start seeing transformations at many levels and the veterans talk about things that they would never discuss in traditional counseling sessions.

G. Just like it says on your website; Proverbs 27:17  as iron sharpens iron, we sharpen each other! That’s exactly what you’re doing.
R. Exactly right. Not a lot of people see the nuance of that. This place is full of nuances. There are so many small victories that we see every day. Nancy also started The Wisdom Way for Warriors. That program was originally a women’s program but is open to men as well.  You know though, some of our best cowboys are actually cowgirls here. They are outstanding. The last graduate we had is tough as nails and some of the women actually came to the Cowboy Up! Program through The Wisdom Way program. That program is equine coaching and is especially geared to address women’s issues. It’s an absolutely wonderful program and we are now employing some of those protocols with our men and in the Cowboy Up! program as well. Nancy, besides being a world class horsemanship and CCHI certified instructor is a certified Reiki Master as well and brings that wonderful coaching element into all that she does. Elements of everything that we can learn that is good and decent that we can bring here – stuff we have learned from Horsemanship Clinicians like Curt Pate and Kerry Kuhn, we will do here. Kerry came out and spent some time with us and loved the program. Likewise, nationally renowned clinicians like Curt Pate for instance, whenever he does a clinic in our region, calls on us to bring our guys and our horses for his demonstrations. That’s an honor for us to be part of his crew. I remind our guys and gals that they should be proud because of all the people he could have called to do this, he called us. So, those are the kind of things that happen and what our crew brings to the table. You can go back and look at our blog for years and see all the stuff we have done. We are very proud, humbled and blessed.

G. It’s an amazing program. Do you receive Government subsidies, or are you totally non-profit?
R. No, the government does not subsidize us. We are a 501- c 3 non-profit. We raise our own money. We have a few staunch supporters that never let us down. In fact, we are one of five programs in the United States that is endorsed by the Wrangler National Patriot Program. Double H Boots is also one of our regular supporters and makes sure all of our guys and gals never do without. It’s all donations though that allows us to keep our hero’s horseback and the program free.

G. What about the wild horses in your area and the horse slaughter debate? Do you have any comments?
R. We were actively involved with New Mexico State University, Dr. Jason Turner, I was asked to sit on the Unwanted and Trespasses Horse Board. The Navajo call them trespass horses and it has become a huge problem on the reservation. Trespass horses are a combination of mustangs and anything that people would cut the fence and kick out. They aren’t truly all mustangs as most folks romanticize.

The problem was exacerbated not only on the reservation but across the Southwest. We had a three year drought here in New Mexico and people were loading their horses up at night, finding a spot to release them and letting them go .You’ve got Susie Sunshine who had a horse at home then went to away to college and then maybe moved across the country and is working and perhaps married with a family, and now her parents have a horse they can’t take care of. There’s a poor horse in the corral. Her folks are on a fixed income and they can’t afford $12 or $14 dollars a bale for hay so they are in a bind. They then load the horse up and kick him out somewhere into the BLM Forest. That was a common situation that we hear out here.

One of the things that happened as a result of this situation was that I was requested to sit on a board chaired by Dr. Turner of NMSU and the Governor’s Office also asked me to take a look at this issue and see if with any of the land that the Dept. of Corrections had could something be done with the horses. I then went to work putting a plan together that would not only address a portion of the horse problem but would also address another problem with incarcerated veterans.  It took us 18 months to do it but we put together what is the Springer Correctional Institution Horse Rescue Program on their 4,000 acre medium security correctional facility in Northern New Mexico. Then I went one step further and I found out how many inmates they had who had honorable discharges who were doing time for non-violent offenses, and there were quite a few of them. With a concept of making this facility a self sustaining horse rescue facility, staffed with honorably discharged, low security inmates, I raised the money through our State Legislature.  We were successful doing that and were able to establish a certified horse rescue facility for the state with honorable discharge, level 1, low security veterans in a new and innovative program. Taking some of our programs already “lessons learned”, we were able to get them started. We got them saddles, recommended curriculum and even assisted them in hiring a program manager. It was a lot of integration and a lot of work, I don’t mind telling you, putting that together. We put thousands of hours into it “pro-bono”.  Originally the concept was that our veterans were supposed to teach the veterans there, but because of some administrative red tape with the prison system we ended up not teaching there, but at least we were able to help them establish the program and get them up and running and establish a needed home for the horses and the incarcerated veterans as well. For us it was a “Matthew 25”  project.  

G. Do you have views on the horse slaughter debate?
R. That is a huge hot button issue here in New Mexico and I think all over now and I don’t want to go into any political stuff. I think though how we treat our animals and what we have established speaks for itself. If you look on our website, any of our horses who come to the end of their useful age, they have a soft landing; they go back to another ranch. We place them all. They all get homes. In fact some are still working with 4-H kids and winning ribbons!

G. How many veterans are currently in your program? How many can stay in the bunkhouse?
R. It seems that we usually have at least a dozen veterans at various stages in the program plus our cadre of veteran instructors. Not always the same dozen though. The idea behind what we do is that it works as a qualitative experience as opposed to a quantitative one, although both elements are there. We spend a great deal of time with each veteran individually according to their needs. There is an intimacy in that type of learning environment that is extremely beneficial. For every hour in a veteran session we spend four additional volunteer hours. As far as our Warrior bunkhouse, we can comfortably sleep four in there. This ratio will allow me two instructors horseback at all times and 1 on the ground while I have four veterans horseback. Sometimes it’s almost a one to one ratio; one instructor to each veteran student. I may have two guys or gals in from out of town and they’re staying in the bunkhouse and they might be working with two other guys or gal veterans that are local who come up to the ranch when their schedule permits. They might be in school at the University of New Mexico or, for instance, one of our veterans is working on an archaeological dig for his Masters thesis and may only have Saturdays to train.  We also have several women on active duty that come from  Kirtland Air Force Base. They work during the week so they also come up on Saturdays and any of their days off.  With folks coming and going, it sometimes can be a juggling act, but it always seems to work out. It’s pretty neat how the magic happens when they start getting together though. We also try to match them up with a horse that fits them as each of our horses has their own unique personalities and level of ability.  Sometimes we’ll just put all of our horses out there in the arena and they will find which horse chooses them!  That is also pretty interesting too.

G. Is there anything else you would like to add?
R. Besides the programs we just spoke about we also work as interfaith and interdenominational planners and facilitators with the US Department of Veterans Affairs Rural Clergy Training Program as well as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe Veterans Task Force. Nancy and I are facilitating a workshop/ retreat in Santa Fe this spring. We did a powerful one for veterans last spring. This one is called Listening with the Heart. It’s specifically geared for faith leaders and clergy and those who are dealing with veterans, spouses and their families in their congregations or in their ministry.  We have assembled a great group of combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are now ordained clergy in their respective faith traditions to assist us as presenters. It is a need that we see and want to fill to insure that they are equipped to assist veterans in their healing; body, mind and spirit.  What we do Gina, we do with a glad heart and we are honored and blessed to do this work. I guess the bottom line is, our work is our witness.

One of our gal’s summed it up the best when, after a great day at the ranch she looked out at a beautiful New Mexico sunset, smiled and said, “Love lives here.”

Connect with Rick and Nancy and – Horses For Heroes Cowboy Up!

Gina McKnight is an author, freelance writer, blogger, poet, and equestrian from Ohio, USA.
An archived interview as seen in the November 2015 issue of Florida Equine Athlete. 
Chris Chaisson     US Army, 101st Airborne Div. wounded in Iraq
Cowboy Up! Graduate & Instructor.
Photo by Romona Robbins
Nancy and Jack
S/Sgt. Joel Tavera US Army Ret.
Eric Yorty    US Army 
101st Airborn Div. wounded in Iraq     Cowboy Up! Graduate & Instructor
Photos Courtesy of Horses for Heroes

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