Refuge Services: Healing with Horses

Refuge Services: Healing with Horses

Refuge Services is one of the nation's leading equestrian therapy centers for children, adults and veterans.

Mario Avila knows first hand how a horse can make a difference. 

"My responsibility, as our veterans program coordinator, is actually broken down into four phases, the first phase being therapy riding for veterans. My assignment is to introduce the veterans to the horse and teaching basic horsemanship skills and how to use a horse and how the horse can benefit them," Avila said. 

Avila knows a lot about veterans, too. "I spent 28 years in a combination of active duty and reserve duty," Avila said. "I went in towards the tail end of Vietnam. Originally scheduled to go to Vietnam, but by the time we went through all the training, they weren't deploying anymore soldiers to Vietnam. I spent 22 years in the reserves and volunteered multiple times to go to different conflicts and wars that we were in and I was never called up." 

"Always in my mind, I had a question, I watched for one my son get to go and I didn't get to go and so I questioned why maybe the Lord kept me from going," Avila said. 

He found the answer in a therapy riding arena. "I was actually helping a little boy and I was really impressed he could handle such a big horse, so I decided to give him a pair of my paratrooper wings. I told him, you know in the Army, when they gave me these they said I was an awfully brave man. I said, I don't know  about that, but you are an awfully brave little boy for riding such a big animal, so I want you to have these," Avila said. 

Avila said, "the first words out of his mouth were you were in the Army? I said yes, I was. He asked were you in any wars?  I said, no for some reason the Lord never sent me there. His mom said the neatest thing to me that I think anybody has ever said or actually to him, now think about it if he had gone to war, he might have gotten killed and would not be here to lead your horse for you and I thought well maybe this is what the Lord's intent was for me."

He is adamant that divine intent, lead him to the refuge. "I came here to help my friend and now if my count is correct I am up to my 14th veteran right now, that I have helped out here and so maybe this is what the Lord meant for me to do," Avila said. 

Helping veterans stateside, fight battles that began overseas.

"I always told the veterans when they come, yes, I'm a veteran, but you know I didn't walk the jungles of Vietnam with you, I didn't walk the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq with you, but I'd like to walk this part of the journey with you if you'll allow me to," Avila said. "It is always rewarding that I could not be there for them, but I can be here for them."

Horse therapy, provides soldiers with a unique type of support they can’t get anywhere else.

"It is absolutely life changing event because when Mike first started coming out here, he was side walking and I saw a change in him personally, that he would come back much more relaxed and he would come back enthusiastic talking about the client the horses and the relationship he had been able to develop with both of them," Leona Henderson, a veteran's wife and Refuge Service supporter said.

"Horses you know they are really honest. You get what you see and you know for me personally, that is the find of feedback I wish you know people would give me," veteran and Refuge Services volunteer, Michael Henderson said.

"It is very moving for me to see. We as humans, we are not able to do in lives, that an animal is able to do," Avila said.

It is a call to duty, to help our veterans on their road to recovery, one hoof at a time.

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