Soldiers Saddle Up and Find Healing with the RCMP
By Julie Meilleur, Soldier On
During their training, soldiers learn to work together as a single unit. Effective communication between individuals is necessary for a team to come together and beat the odds. Riding a horse is no different. To be successful, a rider must put aside their emotions and communicate clearly with their horse through the use of body language and voice commands. The ability to separate from personal problems while working with the horses is a big help to those who have experienced traumatic illness or injury.
For the past 12 years, Soldier On has supported close to 5,000 ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members and veterans to acquire sporting equipment and to participate in group structured activities such as fishing, golf, and horseback riding. In 2013, Soldier On partnered with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to give its members the opportunity to spend a week at the RCMP Musical Ride stables in Ottawa, ON. The Saddle Up camp provides members with a safe place to try something new and connect with people who have faced similar challenges during their time in the CAF. Camp participants learn to groom, feed, and ride the same horses that perform in the Musical Ride. Many of the members have no prior horse experience and are thrilled for the opportunity to learn from the Musical Ride staff. The goal of this camp is to have fun; however, many members find healing and peace with the horses. One member expressed surprise at how the horses could calm her when she needed a break from a busy day. Another member, Diane Doiron, found the horses were far more forgiving of her inexperience than she expected. She was appreciative of their patience with her while she learned about horse care and riding.
Like many Soldier On members, Diane experienced trauma during her time in the CAF. In 1987, she was released from the military because of her sexual orientation. She felt alone and abandoned by her military family and too ashamed to share her story with friends and relatives. For 30 years, Diane was unable to find the help and support she needed from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) or other military support services. In 2017 she, along with 75 other people, received an invitation from the Prime Minister to come to Ottawa for a formal apology regarding the previous discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in the CAF. At that meeting, Diane felt like she was being accepted as a Canadian after 30 years of feeling like an outsider. Since then Diane has been receiving assistance from the military for her post-traumatic stress disorder and, as part of her healing process, she decided to apply to a Soldier On sports camp. A creature of habit with no horse experience, Diane wanted to try something that would push her out of her comfort zone. “I didn’t know that an experience like this was on my bucket list, but now I can cross it off. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before!” When Diane arrived at the Saddle Up Soldier On camp and put on her combat pants for the first time in 30 years, she felt like she was being accepted back into the military family she had left so long ago. For Diane, spending a week at the RCMP stables was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a week she will never forget.
Many soldiers feel guilty because they are ill or injured and cannot deploy. Various factors such as health and family issues can affect why someone does not go overseas, but it doesn’t make them any less of a dedicated soldier. After 23 years in the military, Mylène continues to feel the pressure to give 110 percent in every aspect of her life and often finds it difficult to take time for herself. When she saw the opportunity to spend a week at the RCMP stables, Mylène jumped at the chance but didn’t think she would qualify for the program. When she did get accepted, it was a dream come true. She has always loved working alongside the RCMP and was thrilled to spend a week with them at the stables in Ottawa. “Horses don’t need to ask, they already know how you feel and without even trying to, they help heal you.”
Sergeant Major Martin Kohnen, the lead riding instructor for the Musical Ride, has been involved with the Saddle Up Soldier On camp consistently since 2016. He loves being part of the camp because he knows the effect that horses can have in the lives of ill or injured veterans. He is very aware of the value in giving people the opportunity to ride and learn from these amazing animals. Sergeant Major Kohnen says that being with a horse is like looking in a mirror. “The horses teach people to be clear and give them self-awareness. My hope is that when things get tough outside of this setting, our members can remember what they learned from the horses.”
Although the goal of the Saddle Up Soldier On camp is to give ill and injured veterans and members of the CAF the chance to learn to ride, have some fun, and make some connections with people with similar experiences, participants also found that the experience was able to bring them increased self-awareness and peace. During their service, many Soldier On members experienced illness or injury that has changed the course of their lives forever. Sometimes when trying to heal from trauma, a break from the normal routine can be an important first step.
Joe Kiraly, Communications and Outreach manager, describes the powerful outcomes of the partnership with the RCMP Musical Ride. “Soldier On is very grateful for the amazing support and collaboration offered by the RCMP and its Musical Ride this year and in years past. By having the opportunity to learn from world-class instructors in such an inspirational venue, our ill and injured participants often connect with the activity in a very meaningful way. They frequently return home after the event and link up with equestrian communities close to their homes. This partnership really helps Soldier On meet its mandate of helping ill and injured serving and retired CAF members to discover or rediscover a passion for horsemanship, and sport in general, and remain active for life.”
Soldier On remains committed to helping the ill and injured members and veterans of the CAF by running camps like Saddle Up all over the country. Over the years more and more people have joined Soldier On in the hopes of participating in a camp dedicated to their favourite sport. Since last year there has been a 105 percent increase in interest from veterans and members of the CAF. Camps like Saddle Up are funded solely by the donations of generous Canadians. If you would like to get involved with Soldier On and help our members, please visit www.soldieron.ca/give-support.
All Photos: Serge Gouin, RCMP