Mission Mustang: Wild horses help veterans heal

Mission Mustang: Wild horses helping veterans heal

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HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. – In parts of the country, the number of wild horses is unsustainable. To try to manage the herds, the U.S. Department of Land Management captures some of the mustangs and sends them to farms that can provide food, care, and training. The EquiCenter in Honeoye Falls is one of those farms.

The EquiCenter participates in Mission Mustang which is a national program that pairs veterans battling post-traumatic stress with captive mustangs experiencing the same feelings of loss and anxiety.

Tango is a mustang that came to the EquiCenter last year. For the past six months, Tango has been working with Jeremiah Gerstner, a U.S. Marine.

“I enlisted in 1999, I was medically discharged in 2012. I did five deployments. I did four in Iraq, one in Afghanistan,” he tells News10NBC.

Sgt. Gerstner came back with a lot of trauma, he spent years searching for something that could help.

“I love my family and my kids and they’re my purpose every day but I needed something to occupy my day, you can only play Call of Duty so long and then you’ve got to find something and this program was just a really good thing for me,” he says.

Tango and Gerstner spend time together weekly. When the partnership started, Tango wouldn’t even come close for food and now they’ve formed a bond that has very clearly helped them both.

“They do this thing where, when they greet each other, they breathe into each other’s noses, after a couple of months of me working with him, he would come up to me and start breathing into my nose and waiting for me to breath into his,” Gerstner recalls.

The wild horse also seems to find a way to communicate exactly what he wants.

“I worked with canines in the Marine Corps and I have four dogs at home, I have always really liked horses because, if they really don’t want to do what we tell them to or ask them to, they don’t have to,” Gerstner explains. “This horse is standing here because he wants to chew on my clothes,” he added with a chuckle while Tango was grabbing his shirt.

Gerstner says Tango has been helping him heal.

“It’s really special, and it’s almost kind of like he takes away the negative garbage I have through the day and processes it for me so, I feel relieved at the end of my session here,” he says.

That’s the point of the Mission Mustang program. Veterans suffering from PTSD are often hyper-vigilant of their surroundings and struggle to find purpose and mission.

“If we can dial that back in this environment here when dealing with an animal that doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t understand what we’re trying to ask it to do if we can dial all of that back here and engage and build a relationship with a wild animal then we can do that in other aspects of our life,” explains EquiCenter Equine Instructor, Michael Murphy.

Gerstner is a perfect example of that.

“I’ve been able to cut down dramatically on my PTSD and my anxiety episodes and stuff like that after working with him (Tango)” he says. The connection, the mission, the environment, it all helps. “There’s no one here prying you, asking you what did you do, where were you, or any of that stuff. It’s all what you’re comfortable with and your speed and at your level.”

The EquiCenter has several programs to help Veterans here.