Blowing under fading golden sunlight, winter exhales the first frosty gusts of the coming season. Nearby farms rest silently in between the cascading hills of La Valle, Wisconsin. A horse suddenly cracks the stillness, the echoes of its sharp whinnying reverberating off the sides of trees and barns.

Barbara Knopf spends her days here with her husband, Joe Holder, caring for the horses. But these horses are special: They come to La Valle from locations around the country, getting a second chance at life after witnessing the worst of human cruelty and neglect. Some were starved. Others were beaten. A few were on their way to slaughterhouses. In a change of fortune, the horses were brought to September Farms, where Knopf and Holder’s manage a non-profit, Luvs Morgan Horse Rescue.

Like the horses, Knopf and Holder have sustained injuries. Knopf served in the United States Marine Corps, and Holder, the Army. She walks with a faint limp. He feels the pangs of arthritis. They are a military family, and like his mother, Knopf’s son enlisted in the Marines. His unit fought flames that licked the sides of downed aircraft and vehicles during his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Upon his return to the States, Knopf’s son returned to Wisconsin. Weeks later over cups of coffee, he told her of his struggles. She recounted what her son said, saying “‘I just can’t get what I’m seeing,’ he said. ‘The ghosts, the phantoms, whatever you wanna call it.'”

He had another confession, he told her. “My son put a bullet on my kitchen table,” she says. “He said, ‘I was going to put this in my head in your home.'”

But Knopf’s horses were special. At the same time he thought of suicide, Knopf’s son brushed them, fed them, listened to them breathe. They saved his life, as his family had done for them.

He wanted to help. Knopf says he told her, “You gotta do this for others. Please do this.”

After Knopf’s son asked her to start a veteran’s equine program, she looked to the horses in her rescue for inspiration. This is how the Veterans Equine Trail Services (V.E.T.S.) program began.

Bringing them here to relax

At the September Farms horse arena, a mare and her colt stare attentively. Although he nuzzles close to her frame, his ears still face forward as he gazes through slats in the fence. Pie, the mare, is a hulking 24 years old, and her chocolate frame conceals the fact that she was brought to the farm as a rescue two years ago.

“You couldn’t put your hands on her,” Knopf says. “And now you can’t get rid of her.” Pie waits attentively to be fed carrots.

The little one, Marcus, is six weeks old. He grows excited as Knopf speaks to him, nuzzling her jacket to grab a taste. “He’s a little mouthy as little boys can be!” she laughs.

“What we’re trying to do is get veterans out here, even people that are afraid of horses,” she says. “We start with baby [horses], so every year we raise a few babies for the vets to be able to work with.”

V.E.T.S. has become an increasingly popular program. Through word-of-mouth, some weeks see up to 20 veterans volunteering on the farm. The program operates free of charge to veterans and their families. Partners, relatives and children are regular participants.

“The vets give me a call,” says Knopf. “We ask them to schedule an appointment with me because most of our veterans don’t like to work in big crowds.”

With Knopf and Holder’s assistance, the horses volunteer their time as well. They are paired with a veteran, who works on simple tasks that emphasize touch, movement and relaxation. “We pull them in and we learn how to halter them and lead them properly and groom them and saddle them,” Knopf says. “And then we start working in the round pen, which is a small arena.”

In addition to helping veterans and volunteers who live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), V.E.T.S. serves those who have sustained physical injuries.

“We’re PATH accredited, which is the Professional Association for Therapeutic Riding,” Knopf says. “We actually know how to teach the hippotherapy and help our disabled veterans – not just on the mental avenue of things, but on the physical avenue of things.”

Knopf says many of her volunteers travel by wheelchair. She has made it a point to find ways V.E.T.S. can still serve the volunteers who might not be able to ride or walk with the horses.

“A lot of my horses drive [buggies] because they’ve been rescues from the Amish,” Knopf says. “So we get them out of wheelchairs and actually into true horsepower.”

Ultimately, Knopf says the relationship the horse and the volunteer forms is more important than the types of activities they do together. She says, “It’s not a structured program. I have some guys that come out here that never want to ride.

“They just want to work, and they want to groom and touch the horses. But they don’t want to get on them. That’s fine too. If they want to ride, then we teach them, but they don’t have to know a darn thing about the horses.”

Knopf sees the benefits of these relationships, both in her veteran participants and her horses. “It loosens them up, and they start making eye contact with you when you’re talking, instead of looking at their shoes. They come out of their shell and they become more verbal,” she says.

“What we are trying to get everybody to do when we bring them out here is relax.”

Opening lines of communication

The horses also find peace at V.E.T.S., though it may take months for abused horses to learn to trust people again. Because veterans and rescued horses often share common traumas, Knopf believes the two form unique bonds veterans would not otherwise be able to forge.

“Most of the time when the rescues come in, they’re very fearful of people,” she says. “So we sit on a bucket that’s full of carrots or apple pieces and we coax them up and slowly start touching them.”

As the horses develop trust with their volunteers, veterans often find they have established deep connections with the animals, particularly with the foals. From a young age, Knopf and volunteers teach the young ones that people are a source of much-welcomed rubs for itchy horses. They especially like their butts scratched.

“[A volunteer] will be standing there, and they’ll be afraid. And [the horse] will back up and push on them until they reach out and start scratching,” she says. “In a sense, [the horses] learn to bring people out. And the more you ignore, the worse they are.

“There’s something to be said for a horse that seeks your company versus a horse who is totally indifferent to you. These horses are forever seeking our company.”

Light in the dark

Knopf still has her son’s bullet.

It reminds her of the work that lies ahead. As a veteran, she can’t help but see the profound need all around her.

“The guys and gals that are going [into service] right now are coming back to a failed economy, lost jobs, husbands and wives that have spent their money while they’ve been deployed. … Maybe they’ve lost their home, maybe they’ve lost their job and [maybe] they have a hard time putting the rifle and the cammies in the corner and going back to being a soccer mom or soccer dad,” she says.

Knopf isn’t alone in her mission though; the horses at September Farm lend their assistance. They need the help of their volunteers. As both volunteer and horse begin to heal and trust, their gratitude shines like a spark.

“We try to bring a little light where there’s dark,” Knopf says.

With thanks to the generosity of the late Pearl and Russell Douglas, Veterans Equine Trail Services is moving to the Douglas Legacy Farm in 2013. For those interested in volunteering at the farm, assisting with projects (“We are in great need of hay,” Barbara Knopf says) or scheduling an appointment, contact Barbara Knopf at (608) 985-8886 or [email protected]