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Veterans Conquer Depression with Equine Therapy

Male Veteran standing beside a horse.

Marine Corps Veteran Ruben Vargas and his pal Dandy.

By Tom Cramer
Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Twenty-eight-year-old Katie Hudgin said she sometimes walks over to her favorite horse, Diesel, and buries her face in his neck.

“It’s like I’m giving him a hug and he’s hugging me back,” said the Army Veteran. “He’s my buddy. If he even sees me look at another horse he gets mad at me.  He doesn’t want me to love on other horses.”

Diesel and numerous other horses inhabit a magical place called Windhaven Therapeutic Riding near Vancouver, Wash. It was established back in January, after two years of preparation, for the sole purpose of providing equine therapy to Veterans. 

Not all of Windhaven’s clients are referred there by the VA, but a lot of them are, like Katie Hudgin.

Failing at Life

“I hurt my hip when I was in the service,” she said. “I have a three-year-old daughter and I couldn’t even get down on the floor and play with her.  I was flunking out of school.  I couldn’t hold down a job.   I felt like I was failing as a mother, and as a person.  I felt like I was failing at life.  I got to the point where I didn’t want to hurt anymore.”

Then she discovered Windhaven, and Diesel. Her depression has lifted; her pain has subsided. 

“I was taking seven or eight pills a day,” she said. “Muscle relaxers, anti-depressants, all kinds of pills.  Now I’m down to just two pills.”

“I got to the point where I didn’t want to hurt anymore.”

Hudgin said the healing connection between human and horse occurs during the grooming process, when the Veteran is in close physical proximity to the animal.

“Horses are like big mirrors,” she explained. “If I’m grooming Diesel and he’s antsy, it makes me look inside myself because he’s reflecting back what I’m feeling. He’s mimicking my emotions.  So I look inside myself, and change what’s going on inside me.  I calm myself down.”

Army Veteran Katie Hudgin and her favorite horse, Diesel

Army Veteran Katie Hudgin and her favorite horse, Diesel

Hudgin is currently on her way to becoming a full-time instructor at Windhaven so she can spend her days helping other Veterans who are in the same emotional boat she was in.

“This place changed my life,” she said. “It saved my life.”

And it seems life just keeps getting better. “Now my daughter, Sheri Kay, comes up to the therapy barn with me and helps me,” Hudgin beamed.  “We’ve bonded over horses!  We’ve connected.   I feel like I’m a good mother now.” 

By Veterans, For Veterans

Nancy McFarlane, a recreation therapist and yoga instructor at the Portland VA in Oregon, said equine therapy seems to be the perfect answer for certain Veterans coping with post-traumatic stress and other disorders, both mental and physical.

“When you treat horses well they connect with you,” she said. “They trust you. A relationship forms.  My patients who return from Windhaven tell me they haven’t felt so relaxed in months.  They tell me they’re sleeping better at night.  They can’t say why, exactly.  All they know is that they feel better…

“Another good thing about Windhaven,” she added, “is that it’s run by Veterans, for Veterans. The founders, Denice and her husband Rodger, are retired military.  Most of their volunteers are nurses or former military, and they’re very tuned in to Veterans with PTSD.  That’s great news for the patients we refer to Windhaven.” 

Nancy McFarlane 
Nancy McFarlane  

“The horses are the therapists here,” said Windhaven’s co-founder and Operations Manager Rodger Morrison. “You’re not just learning how to groom the horse, or ride the horse.  The horse is changing something inside you.”


Morrison said he and his team have a fail-safe method for hooking up each Veteran with exactly the right equine partner.

“We do join-ups,” he explained. “It’s where we put the Vets and the horses together, and eventually each horse gravitates to a particular Veteran. The Veteran doesn’t choose the horse; the horse chooses the Veteran.  And the horse is never wrong.”  

Sixty-two year-old Ruben Vargas is a Marine Corps Veteran who, like Kate Hudgin, was suffering from debilitating physical pain accompanied by depression.

“I look forward to going out to Windhaven every Saturday,” he said. “This place has been really good for me. It’s all Vets out there so we can talk to each other.  It’s like a family gathering.  It helps me a lot.”

And, like Katie Hudgin, Vargas has paired up with a horse who seems to be a perfect match for him.

“His name is Dandy,” said the former Marine. “He’s kind of like me, stubborn and hard-headed.  So we get along good.  And when I’m grooming him or walking him around I’m not thinking about my pain.  I’m not thinking about it at all.”

To learn more about Windhaven Therapeutic Riding, visit

To find out more about mental health programs offered by the VA, visit the Veterans Resource Center at