Healing Among the Herd08/30/2021 12:17PM ● By Dan Greeson
Horses assist in healing veterans, first responders and other sufferers of trauma at Warhorse Ranch in rural Routt County.
Story by Dan Greeson | Photography by Mike Lozano/ Warhorse Ranch
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – In the rural countryside northwest of Steamboat Springs lies a patch of ranchland where the strongest and bravest among us are given the opportunity to let their guards down. At Warhorse Ranch, veterans, first responders and others who suffer from trauma and PTSD work toward healing through interactions with horses.
Co-founded by Mike and Valery Lozano, Warhorse Ranch has a long history of equine excellence. It’s located in the heart of where the quarterhorse, an American-bred horse known for its speed and strength, was born. The horses now residing in the ranch’s 123-year-old barn are tasked with a different kind of strength: navigating deep pain and trauma.
What sets Warhorse Ranch apart that it is an equine therapy facility run by veterans who have benefited from therapy themselves. Mike Lozano, co-founder of the ranch, enlisted in the marines back in 1991 at the age of 17. In 2003, he was deployed in operations to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and fought in several of that war’s most intense battles.
In 2008, Mike returned to the U.S. to train to become a Federal Law Enforcement Officer in Georgia, and it was during this training that he met Valery – they married a year later while both working as federal agents. In the following 12 years that they both served as homeland security officers, the couple battled against drug running, prostitution, human trafficking and child abuse. By his retirement, Mike had experienced PTSD, hearing loss, and brain trauma requiring surgery. Valery had experienced her share of trauma too, which manifested in her as hyper-vigilance. “One day I was walking into a mall in Colorado Springs, and it hit me all at once that I was in high-alert protection mode with my kids,” she says.
After suffering in silence for years, the couple agreed that it was time to seek help.
While at a Wounded Warrior retreat in 2011, Mike first interacted with horses in an equine therapy environment and the result was life-changing. This planted an idea for Mike and Valery that would eventually grow into Warhorse Ranch, which they co-run with Valery as president.
More veterans are lost to suicide than to combat each year, with many others succumbing to abusive behavior and alcoholism, and the staff at Warhorse Ranch hope to change that. “The people experiencing the most trauma will experience the most relief here,” says Jo Lauter, director of marketing and horse caretaker. “Steamboat Spring was originally a healing place for the Utes. Warhorse Ranch wants to bring that back.”
“Trauma is a lot like shutting off a computer without shutting it down – just suddenly unplugging it,” says Calder Young, a veteran who spent eight years in the Marines and helps run the ranch. “Many of us know how to fire up, but not how to calm down.”
“The goal is reorganizing trauma to a level where you can live your life,” Valery says.
The veterans who operate Warhorse Ranch use their own “Warhorse Method” of equine therapy, based upon the method used by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. EAGALA teaches traumatized individuals to engage with the horses on foot instead of riding them, creating a connection between horse and human with all six feet planted on the ground.
“The horses are the heartbeat of this whole thing,” Mike says. As herd animals, horses are strongly connected with everything – and everyone – in their vicinity. At the core of equine therapy is the idea that horses can sense the emotions, thoughts and needs of the creatures around them. “You can’t fake it with a horse,” Valery says. “They always pick up on anxiety and depression.”
On the other side of the coin, the size and strength of a horse is an attention-grabber and a humbling presence. “There’s something so powerful, but so gentle, about horses,” Lauter says. “There’s nothing that a horse, in all its hugeness, can’t touch in a human.” Caring for an animal – reducing the complexities of life to the basics of food, shelter, water and safety – allows those with PTSD to find relief from life’s built up worries. “There are many triggers out there these days, which leads to people with trauma being on high alert all the time,” Valery says.
The crew at Warhorse Ranch has many ideas in the works, including an office space in which to provide Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy in parallel with their equine therapy. They hope to eventually organize week-long retreats during which individuals will have the time and space to combine equine and EMDR therapy with mindful outdoor activities. “You don’t want to bring too much to the surface at once,” Young explains.
Warhorse Ranch has been accepted by the Steamboat Springs community with open arms, with many locals volunteering their time and money. “People are starting to notice what we’re up to,” Valery says. This is essential, she adds, because many veterans won’t go out of their way to seek out PTSD treatment options.
“No matter how much publicity or how many donations we get, we’re still going to do it,” Valery says. “Even if we’re just running it out of our driveway. We’re not here to become millionaires.”
Find Warhorse Ranch’s booth at the Steamboat Farmers Market each Saturday through the summer. For more information, visit www.WarhorseRanch.org.