The nonprofit organization known as the Wounded Warrior Project helps wounded war veterans adjust to life after serving on the battlefield by honoring and empowering them.

One aspect of its mission is to "provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members."

That was illustrated when a unit visited the Blue Sky Ranch on Tuesday for a session that utilized horses.

Annie Bolognino, the ranch's head wrangler, said the 14 men who participated in the event returned recently from the war in Iraq.

"The soldiers had returned with different types of injuries mental and physical from a traumatic environment, so most of their emotions were on the top end of things, if you understand," Bolognino said. "These guys deal with their own emotional trauma and are still trying to connect with life at different stages."

That was something Bolognino could relate to because horses, in general, are always on a heightened level due to their innate nature.

"It made sense to put the horses and the men together in order for both groups to connect on a bigger picture," she said.

Bolognino and her staff started off the day by introducing the soldiers to the horses.

"We showed the men how, through patience and time, to work with the animals," she said. "We wanted to show them that it takes time for things to develop and that they don't have to go barreling through their problems or issues and develop confrontation.


They can learn to be patient and not get frustrated with themselves."

Bolognina used a male horse named Paintbrush in one of the demonstrations.

"Paintbrush, in particular, has some trust issues," she said. "He is very standoffish, but it helped more that I worked with him to show the soldiers his transformation from being standoffish to him wanting and willing to connect with me."

Bolognina explained how the horse's body language gave her hints as to whether or not the animal was comfortable.

"Paintbrush went through a traumatic period in the morning when we were transporting him to the ranch," Bolognina said. "So, he was just rife with emotion, but once we got the horse comfortable, he started following me around the pen and the guys thought that was the coolest thing they ever saw.

"In doing that, we showed them how important it was to take the time for the horse to make its own decision as to whether or not it wanted to get close to me."

Throughout the five-hour session, the soldiers were able to experience hands-on workshops with the horses.

"Those activities helped the men understand that it is important to take time to feel the wind on their faces and feel the fur under their hands," Bolognina said. "We gave the soldiers a chance to groom the horses and have a one-on-one time.

"Those were what we call a mini moment," she said. "While those moments are not going to change the soldiers' lives in one day, they can take these experiences and use them the throughout their lives, no matter what kinds of trauma they've been through and what issues they are coping with."

At one point, the soldiers were instructed to lead the horses through a course of cones and rails.

"The horses were walked through the cones and the soldiers were able to use the energy in their bodies to lead the horse forward or to stop or have them go backward," Bolognina said. "It was a way to help them communicate."

Another exercise required the men to help the horse step over a rail through a sequence of moves.

"They would have the horse step one foot over the rail and then back again and then the next time step two feet over and then back them up," Bolognina explained. "The hardest part was having them lead the horse to get three feet over the rail and stop, before continuing over."

Tuesday's event was a first for the Blue Sky Ranch, and the idea was inspired by the work done at the National Ability Center.

"One of our wranglers works at the NAC and has done a program like this, but they only have three or four horses to every 15 to 20 soldiers at a time," Bolognina said. "It's hard to give these men the opportunity for a one-on-one time with the animals, so we made the proposal to NAC to do a session at the ranch.

"I know what horses have offered to me in my life and to give these guys something in the short time we had together struck home," Bolognina said. "I had a couple of soldiers give me some gifts. One was a Wounded Warriors bracelet and another soldier gave me a medallion that was from one of his friends who was in the front line of his platoon. He passed it on to me and said, if the situation were ever upon you to give this to someone else, I would like you to pass it along.

"One of the unit's counselors, Stephen Shields, came up to me and said what a phenomenal experience it was for these men," she said. "I hope to do this again."