MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Cpl. Steven Kurkwood, Wounded Warrior Battalion West, was doing footwork exercises with his horse, GT. An old Styrofoam Halloween decoration blew against the gate; GT spooked but Kurkwood kept his cool. The horse acknowledged his master’s poise and scrambled around trying to hide behind his protector.
This is the kind of trust Marines build with horses in the Wounded Warrior Horsemanship Program. The program is a part of the Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program, one of eight different options given to wounded warriors, including archery, shooting, archery, basketball, swimming, cycling, volleyball and track and field.
Marines choosing the equestrian option are taken to a ranch and are paired with a wild mustang, which they tame over the course of the following months. The Marines build bonds with the mustangs, as they care for and train the horses.
“Working with the horses, in my opinion, helps the Marines and the horses to relax,” Kurkwood said. “It takes their minds off stresses; it’s very therapeutic. It teaches you to keep calm, because the horses feed off the emotions you have.”
Earlier this year, the Marines from the Combat Center detachment of WW Bn. West started the program and continue to visit their mustangs at the Sinwood Ranch.
Twice a week, the Marines make the trip to the ranch to help maintain the mustangs’ health and aid in the long process of their domestication. They spend their mornings grooming and cleaning them followed with some lunging and footwork, to help get rid of some of the anxiety they build from being in the stables.
“The Marines are working to build trust with the mustangs and eventually they’ll be rideable, but some of these mustangs aren’t even used to having a saddle on them,” said Tara Bright, warrior athlete reconditioning program manager, WW Bn. West. “So it takes some time for them to get adjusted to the saddle and have someone lead them around.”
Many of these horses have only been out of the wild for a few months, still stubborn and fighting for control.
Kurkwood has had a great deal of experience with many different types of horses in his home in Michigan, but working with mustangs was still a great challenge.
“Growing up, I’ve always had horses,” Kurkwood said. “My grandma had 15 horses, then my grandpa had two or three. I’ve worked with big horses, miniatures, but never with mustangs and to see the difference between a domesticated horse and a mustang that’s pulled from the wild is a wonder in itself. ”
How long it takes for a horse to be domesticated is largely dependent on the animal, however, sooner or later they learn that their care takers are only there to help and this relationship is mutually beneficial.
Many of the horses, described to be rowdy upon arrival, are now more timid and follow direction from the Marines. The relationship the Marines build with their mustangs goes beyond the semiweekly visits, as some of the Marines talk about visits to see their mustang after separation from active duty.