Doug Willard took first place in a class in last month’s National Snaffle Bit Association World Show in Tulsa — but for him, the best part of the show was meeting the riders he was competing against.
Comraderie is not usually why riders compete at shows, but as a participant in the NSBA’s Heroes on Horses Western Pleasure class, Doug shared a special bond with his fellow riders, all of whom were either disabled veterans or active-duty wounded warriors. Doug, a telecommunications operator serving in the U.S. Army from 1988-1992, now lives in Baxter Springs, Kansas. He’s attended several horse shows as a helper, but this was the first in which he’d participated.
“I was talked into participating somewhat at the last moment, but I just loved seeing how well they took care of all of us in the veterans class,” said Doug. “Yes, it was still a competition, so I just went in there and rode and had fun — but the best part for me was meeting the other guys and hearing what therapeutic riding has done for them. The riding matters far more to them than the competition does.”
Doug would know. After he got out of the Army he worked in building restoration. After breaking his arm at work a few years ago, he decided to volunteer somewhere locally while he healed. He asked Shelly McColm, the head of a therapeutic riding center called Horses of Hope, if he could volunteer at the barn as a side walker and general assistant.
“I was just amazed at the therapeutic riding and what the horses had done for these kids,” said Doug about volunteering at Horses of Hope. “It only took a few days before I fell in love with what was happening. I guess they also liked the way I do things and the response I got from the kids, so I ended up working at Horses of Hope as an employee.”
On a typical day Doug might be a side walker for a child, making sure he or she stays upright on the horse, or he might work with the educational programs or help with the after-school programs. Regardless of the job, he does it with a big smile on his face.
“That’s kind of my specialty,” he said. “I like to be silly, so I make a lot of jokes. There’s always a certified riding instructor working with me, so my real job is to make the kids feel special.”
Horses of Hope is also working on a new pilot program for veterans who are interested in riding, which Doug is keenly interested in.
“There’s definitely a very critical need for programs like that, with soldiers returning with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and other physical and emotional challenges,” he said. “At NSBA, a lot of the guys were saying that they’re used to people caring for them, but that riding gives them an opportunity to care for something else that needs them — they’re no longer the patient.”
He paused for a minute, then continued, “that’s how I feel about my work too — people always say ‘oh it’s so great what you do for these kids’ — but I always feel that I’m the one who benefits — not just from the kids, but the horses too. That’s my therapeutic moment.”
SUCCEED was proud to co-sponsor this event for the third year in a row. Heroes on Horses honors our veterans and wounded, active-duty service men and women and the horses that are helping them heal. They compete in walk/jog western pleasure, often with horses borrowed from local therapeutic riding programs.