When Gail Watts, a 30-year military veteran, returned from her second deployment, something felt off.
Watts, Baltimore County’s director of corrections, didn’t know how to put the feeling into words. But she knew she needed help, so she participated in a three-day program with the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation, which pairs about 200 veterans a year with horses to help the vets process trauma.
“I was a skeptic when I went into the program. I said to myself, ‘How can horses help me?’” Watts said. “It was a therapeutic experience that changed my life and helped me to deal with the changes I was experiencing when I came home from deployment.”
The Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based nonprofit, which operates facilities there and in Aiken, S.C., celebrated the opening Sunday of a new 9,600-square-foot arena at the Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Cockeysville, which will allow the foundation to double the program’s capacity.
Named in honor of Kevin Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive who died unexpectedly on May 10, the arena cost the county $2.96 million to build and will be used to provide the free veterans’ program and other equine activities. The foundation will fund the program, and the county will pay for the care of the horses.
Kamenetz’s wife, Jill, and son, Karson, 16, attended Sunday’s news conference at the arena on Shawan Road and said the dedication was a fitting tribute.
“He loved horses and he loved veterans,” Jill Kamenetz said. “This is just doing what he loved best.”
Karson said his father would have loved it.
“He would’ve started taking some riding lessons,” he said.
The rotating herd of 10 to 18 thoroughbred horses at the farm is provided by Sagamore Racing, a Reisterstown farm owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, and the Foxie G Foundation, a local nonprofit adoption and permanent retirement program for racehorses.
The county is pursuing other programming for the new arena as well, said Baltimore County Council Chair Julian E. Jones, who emceed Sunday’s ceremony.
The county is in talks with EquiTeam Support Services, a southern Pennsylvania firm that provides equine-assisted therapy for veterans that incorporates professional psychotherapy and continuing care, he said. It also hopes to court the Connected Horse Project, which works with those experiencing early-stage dementia and their caregivers.
Saratoga WarHorse’s program doesn’t involve the veterans riding the horses, said founder Bob Nevins. Instead, each enters a large circular pen, one-on-one with the animal, which usually begins frantically circling the perimeter until the veteran learns to communicate with it and to make it feel comfortable.
The program eschews a psychological approach — even avoiding the term “therapy” — in favor of what Nevins calls an “equine-assisted experience.”
Veterans trained to use violence, force and intimidation to accomplish missions in the military, he said, instead must learn to bond with the horse, communicating with it using body language and building trust with the animal.
“It’s so powerful for the veteran to be able to do something just through communication,” he said. “That horse accepts them unconditionally.”
The program also offers the thoroughbreds a rewarding and meaningful way to spend their retirement from racing, Nevins said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a natural response to a deeply disturbing life event, said Baltimore County Fire Chief Kyrle W. Preis III. Several of the county’s firefighters have gone through the program, he said, and more likely will sign up, now that it is available closer to home. It will serve veterans from across the country.
Viewing PTSD as a wound that needs to be treated helps remove some of the stigma that can be a major barrier to many veterans seeking help, Preis said.
“This is helping them recover from those injuries,” he said.
Baltimore County Fire Lt. Steve Mooney serves as a chief master sergeant in the Air National Guard and has been deployed five times.
He recalled being intimidated at first when he was put in the ring with a racehorse at the program’s South Carolina facility. Then, the animal relaxed. Soon it was following him around like a puppy.
“It’s a totally different experience when you get in that arena with a 1,300-pound thoroughbred,” he said. “You can’t describe the emotional experience, the change you see. It’s like a reset.”
Another county firefighter, Capt. Scott Russell, a lieutenant colonel in the Delaware Air National Guard’s 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, completed the program in 2015 after a deployment to Germany and Afghanistan — his seventh.
Showing veterans how to relax and control the horse gives them a new perspective on how to handle their own trauma, Russell said.
Nevins “doesn’t try to fix you,” Russell said. “But he shows you you can take another step.”