AIKEN — As Matthew Shepherd locked eyes with a thoroughbred race horse, the world suddenly stopped.
The stress of lost job opportunities, strained relationships at home and visions of civilian casualties in Iraq all seemed to melt away with the falling rain this week at the Equine Rescue of Aiken for the disabled Army veteran.
In that moment, an unbreakable bond was forming between soldier and horse, two weary warriors connecting on a level of peace and trust that veterans to this day still struggle to describe.
“That healing spot in my heart, I think he found it,” Shepherd, 35, said, breaking down in tears after he put his head on the horse’s shoulder. “We’re the same person. He understands where I have been. He feels my pain.”
Shepherd is one of about 100 veterans who have graduated at Aiken’s equine rescue in the past year from Saratoga WarHorse, a nonprofit foundation based in New York that assists veterans nationwide suffering from psychological disorders by connecting them to abused and neglected race horses.
The organization was founded in 2011 by Army veteran Bob Nevins in Saratoga Springs, a city in eastern New York made famous in the early 20th century for its historic racetrack, and came to Aiken last November to create an environment for veterans to heal.
At first, Nevins, a helicopter pilot who provided Vietnam medical evacuations in the early 1970s, funded the program himself, but then, as word spread of the foundation’s success, donations began pouring in to pay for participants’ lodging, travel fare and food, he said.
Now, he holds four three-day programs a month, two in Aiken and two in Saratoga Springs, bringing in six veterans at a time from across the country to initiate long-lasting changes in their lives.
“The key is that we are a peer-to-peer organization,” Nevins said. “That’s what reestablishes trust.”
Nevins said he contacts and flies in each veteran himself and has a private dinner with them the night they arrive for them to become acquainted with each other, meet his staff and learn about the program.
The next day, the group undergoes hands-on training with an equine instructor to learn the horse’s body language, as some thoroughbreds have had to be reconditioned to interact with humans after they were taken from their mother as a foal to race.
After preparations, the veteran and horse meet in a round pen.
While the horse makes several loops around the pen, the veteran maintains eye contact and keeps a 45-degree stance. When the horse stops, the veteran reaches out a hand to slowly draw the animal closer. Then, the horse puts its head down, lets out a loud snort and allows the veteran to pet under its neck and share an embrace.
For some veterans, they say it is the first act of trust or friendship extended their way in years, even decades.
“That connection they make becomes a permanent fixture in their psyche,” Nevins said. “It stays with them forever.”
Tom Diaz, 44, of Aiken, graduated from the program in February and said the bond he established with his horse, named Making the Green, saved his family and removed the hurdles keeping him from confronting his “inner demons.”
Diaz served as a Navy hospital corpsman first class from 1989 to 2009. Before his retirement, he provided tsunami relief and was on the Navy ship sent to Indonesia in December 2004 to provide medical care to distressed families.
Among the survivors he treated was a 14-year-old pregnant girl so dehydrated that her baby was nearly lost.
His crew was able to save the two, but that memory was among many that haunted him and led to sleepless nights and Diaz, a father of nine children, became emotionally distant toward his family.
“I was unable to look at myself in the way I needed to find peace,” said Diaz, who met Nevins and learned about Saratoga WarHorse at an open house.
Diaz admits he was skeptical when he first arrived, thinking “great pony rides for vets.” He said at first his horse, in physical pain from an abscess in his mouth, started kicking, and he felt discouraged to be paired with one that wouldn’t play.
Then, he said, it “all clicked.”
“That horse turned toward me, a connection was established and in my soul, a barrier was lifted,” he said. “I found absolute peace.”
Diaz said the moment lasted only about 30 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
“I was bawling and opening windows and doors to internal struggles that had been buried deep in my mind,” said Diaz.
Diaz said his tsunami flashbacks and night terrors ceased, as well as his rage. Now, he said he is receiving counseling at his church and sharing his story in the Saratoga WarHorse program to lend support to veterans who feel alone and are possibly contemplating suicide.
That includes Justin Lindley, 29, of Michigan, who served in the Army from 2006 to 2014, including two tours in Iraq.
Lindley said he has had two spinal fusions and a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in which he has violent night terrors that involve him speaking Arabic in his sleep, having visions of friends getting hurt and picking up corpses of civilian casualties.
He said he can no longer sleep with his wife.
“It’s like a DVR on constant replay,” he said of the nightmares.
During a debriefing exercise, Lindley said he didn’t think he was going to make a connection because his horse kept stopping and pausing, but when the two bonded, he went from tense to relaxed, in an instant.
“It was nice to know that he trusted me,” Lindley said.
Lindley said the challenge for a lot of veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries is the “unknown.”
“It drives them away from getting involved and making a change in their lives,” he said.
That’s what happened to Shepherd, a friend of Lindley’s who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. After he returned home, Shepherd said he had trouble controlling his emotions and would often have visions of a woman he shot in Iraq standing in his window. No one else saw her.
“When I finally came in close, my horse looked me right in the eye,” he said. “I couldn’t hear a word outside the pen.”
Shepherd described the moment as an “eye-opening experience,” telling Nevins and other veterans in his group that his bond reenergized him to rebuild relationships with friends and family.
“You guys are making a difference,” Lindley said after hearing Shepherd. “You’re saving soldiers’ lives.”