Walk By Faith Therapeutic Riding brings horses and veterans together to forge bonds, build mutual trust

    It’s a connection most wouldn’t automatically make, but for Kristen Schwarz, a self-described “horse-crazy girl,” when she encounters young mustang horses that were recently in the wild and are coming in contact with humans for the first time, she envisions an especially mutual benefit if some of that early contact is with a military veteran.

    “These mustangs come to us with no experience of being handled by humans; we take them in and they have to learn to adapt to a new life. That makes it hard for them to trust us at first,” explained Schwarz, co-founder of Walk By Faith Therapeutic Riding in Fisher. “Our veterans may approach coming home from deployment the same way, or exiting the military. They may need to incorporate into a world that they are not used to. So often, these mustangs and horses in general can mirror our own feelings and emotions.”

    With those potentially parallel challenges in mind, Schwarz and her husband, Travis, spent several hours on Saturday in the University of Minnesota Crookston’s University Teaching and Outreach Center (UTOC) Arena with a few veterans and a couple of young mustangs “soft-captured” in western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and brought to the Schwarz’s.

    In the middle of the arena, the veterans, one at a time, worked with Hunter and Shenandoah, trying to break down barriers and establish trust while running the horses through exercises such as “lunging,” in which the veterans controlled a rope while the horses ran in circles around them. As needed, Kristen and Travis joined the veteran and horse to help strengthen the new bond being forged.

    “We want to reach those that need us; they form bonds with these mustangs that often lets them see things differently,” Kristen said. “The only human interaction that these mustangs have before us is seeing people in the park and through the capture process where they are prepared for pickup. They really have to learn to trust in a big way.”

    Hunter and Shenandoah are still relatively small in stature and, in addition to having very little close contact with humans, they also aren’t used to having any weight on them. Given that, Saturday’s goals in the UTOC Arena were fairly modest when it came to getting them somewhat accustomed to carrying some weight.

    “Shenandoah’s only had a saddle on her a few times, so we’re working to getting her used to carrying it,” Kristen explained.

    But with Travis and veteran Crystal Guzman working with Shenandoah in the center of the arena, Shenandoah exceeded expectations. While Guzman slowly led her on a walk, Travis on a couple occasions over a few minutes slowly laid at an angle across Shenandoah’s back while periodically stroking her neck and patting her to calm her and reassure her. When Shenandoah seemed OK with what was transpiring, Travis pushed himself up in the saddle and Guzman led the mustang on a casual walk while she carried her first human on her back.

    “I can’t believe it,” Kristen said while watching the mustang, her husband and Guzman make their way around the middle of the arena. “Look at what they’re doing!”

    Walk By Faith’s next veterans program is set for UTOC Arena on Saturday, March 23 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. To learn more or to register, visit walkbyfaiththerapeuticriding.com, email walkbyfaiththerapeuticriding@gmail.com, or call 280-3284 or 289-7058.

About Walk By Faith

    Walk By Faith Therapeutic Riding is a faith-based therapeutic activities program founded to help others feel independence and belonging through the use of horses. In its Children's Program they service individuals with special needs in hopes to show them the love and freedom that their horse partners have to offer. Through their Operation Hunter's Heroes team, they help veterans/active service personnel get a second chance at hope while giving the mustangs a second chance at life.

    Walk By Faith is located at the Schwarz home in Fisher, where they live with their four children. Kristen became a certified therapeutic riding instructor in 2013 and the couple launched Walk By Faith Therapeutic Riding, Inc. in April 2014. A year later, they received 501(c)3 non-profit certification.