Inside the freshly painted red barn, seven navy soldiers slid from laughter to sighs as they reflected on the day, and the cause, on Saturday July 29, when volunteers from the Ventura County Navel Base descended upon Ojai’s Equine Sanctuary – a non-profit rescue shelter for horses headed to slaughter –where caring, off duty military personnel came to paint the barn and fix fences.
Alexis Ells, founder and director of the Equine Sanctuary, closed the work day in the cool interior of the barn with seven of the original 23 volunteers from the base, as she shared stories of tortuous abuse experienced by the horses that these soldiers had helped today, along with heartwarming tales of their rescue, recovery, and the work that these noble equines deliver to returning soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) through ongoing therapy programs that unite the animals with returning combat soldiers who are themselves abused.
Within the safety of the corrals surrounded by rugged open fields that are pathways to recovery, horses and soldiers weave relationships that nurture healing in a beautiful symbiotic relationship based on care and love, where animal (nature) spirit unites with the human spirit in a strange connection that some call surreal.
It’s what Ells defines as “Mirroring,” whereby a therapy horse is innately sensitive – aware of the soldier’s feelings, enabling the animal to “mirror” back the emotion, which leads to healing, through self awareness activated through the reflective/self-reflective process.
Coordinated by the religious ministries of the naval base which organizes volunteer activities meant to join military personnel with their local community, the Equine Sanctuary offers a prime example of how the Ventura County Navy Base stays involved with local organizations.
“This is the second time we’ve come here,” says Wallie Brobst, a volunteer from the base. “That’s the cool thing about Navy. What we do for our country is what we do for our community. It’s kind of hypocritical to say you’ll be there for your country, but not your neighborhood. We don’t limit our efforts to just helping the country.”
Nearby, Navy soldier Nicholas Maisonet diligently scrubs his hands to remove red paint while the barn dries in the background. Maisonet, a transport officer with the navy, is 30, married with two children. “The Chaplin emailed our command about the volunteer event, and I decided to come.” Maisonet had special interests in the shelter, and the ability of the horses to help cure, or at least help, anyone suffering from a devastating experience – emotional or physical.
“My wife had (a traumatic experience) in childhood, and taking an active role to help her recover is important. It’s clear about the therapeutic value of horses,” Maisonet said, dousing more cleaner on his hands. “I understood animal cruelty to a point before, but I didn’t know (these animals) could be slaughtered for food.”
Maisonet refers to the popular and expanding industry currently legal in Canada and China, whereby horsemeat is processed and sold as food for restaurants, involving numerous kill farms to supply horse meat to the food industry, a trend that is growing internationally in popularity.
In the wake of the global economic crisis, the availability of horses at less than cost value as they are sold on the auction block for pennies on the dollar, prior to heading to the slaughterhouse, secures a good investment for international food dealers in this rapidly growing consumer group.
Meanwhile, back at the Equine Sanctuary, horses graze in open fields, then go to work with humans, comforting , mirroring the emotions of their “patients” inside huge marble eyes that somehow deliver nurturing comfort that is immeasurable. Ultimately, these equines seem to know that their new home satisfies a universal pilgrimage to bring us all home, to a safe place where all can thrive, and finally heal.
The objective of the Equine Sanctuary is to rescue horses and retire them to a safe environment where they can live peacefully, to ultimately experience their sunset in healthy, serene surroundings, while sharing their “internal healing mechanism” on humans who need their help to cure our ills and help erase demons, and that is precisely what the Equine Sanctuary is all about.