Horseback riding helped Rachael Gilmour through a difficult childhood and later helped her heal from a debilitating illness. Grateful and amazed, Rachael wanted to share this miracle with others. Today, she and a corral full of horses offer hope and healing to other troubled souls, including hundreds of military heroes.
The Power of Love
With a boost, Rachael settled atop her beloved horse, Palette. Almost immediately, all the pain and weariness of the past two years faded away. She had just one thought: I wish I could share this feeling with others who are hurting.
From the time she was a child, horses had been Gilmour’s solace. Growing up, she spent countless hours at the farm across the road from her Goodrich, Michigan, home, helping care for and riding horses. At just 10, using saved birthday money, she bought her first horse. “Saba” became her best friend and confidant — especially when her mom remarried and her stepdad turned abusive. Her mom eventually left the marriage, but its turmoil and fallout set Gilmour, who was in high school at the time, on a destructive path. Through everything, however, Saba remained her anchor. It was their bond that helped Gilmour get back on track.
After high school graduation, she studied equine management and science, and over the years, worked a variety of animal-related jobs. Every chance she had, she went riding with Saba and her foal, Palette. In 2010, however, she grew weak, and often, could barely get out of bed. It took two years for her to be diagnosed with common variable immune deficiency, a disease wherein the body doesn’t produce antibodies to bacteria and viruses. In her darkest days, it was her horses that kept her going. She regularly visited the stables — an enormous physical task at the time — in order touch them and nuzzle their manes. It was the only thing capable of lifting her spirit as she came to terms with her illness. It was this memory that prompted her decision to build a place where wounded souls could experience the same healing love of horses.
In 2016, with her husband Ted Gilmour as partner, she opened Equine Escape, welcoming special needs and at-risk youth and also wounded warriors. “When I get anxious, I start holding my breath. But when I ride, I can feel my horse breathing, and I start breathing with her and I get calm,” says Melissa Everett, an Army vet who suffers from bipolar disorder and PTSD.
Since returning home, Rick Young, a veteran who served in Iraq, had been stampeding his way through life, always pushing himself and others. But the draft horse he chose insisted on setting the pace. “I pushed and pulled. Nothing worked. I finally threw up my hands. Lesson acknowledged.”
When Kent Thomas, who spent a year in Afghanistan, told Rachael he wasn’t sleeping, she gave him a series of exercises. “Lean forward and let your body rest against the horse’s neck,” she began, then, “Turn around, lie on your back with your head toward her flanks.”
“I had to trust and give myself over to the horse completely,” Thomas says. “When it was over, I climbed into my car and bawled like a baby. At home, I slept like a baby 14 hours straight. Now, whenever I start feeling edgy, my wife tells me it’s time to visit the horses.”
Another program participant, a wounded warrior who now volunteers at Equine Escape, adds: “You don’t realize how many issues you have until you get around a horse and feel comforted by them.”
The secret, according to Gilmour, is the fact that you can’t hide your feelings from a horse.. “They don’t care what you look like, where you come from or your financial status. Their unconditional love and acceptance heals hearts and souls,” she says
3 Unique Ways Service Animals Heal – Ease PTSD Symptoms
1. Building Trust
Studies show that bonding with animals elevates levels of the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin. “Oxytocin improves trust and helps overcome paranoia and other PTSD symptoms,” says Meg Daley Olmert, Director of Research at Warrior Canine Connection. That means each service animal that a veteran comes in contact with can help heal them — mind, body and soul!
2. Reducing Stress
Just 15 minutes of positive interaction with a service animal — whether it belongs to you or not — can ease anxiety by up to 24 percent and cut stress by 40 percent. How it works: by reducing the stress hormone cortisol, say Harvard researchers. Plus, a study at England’s University of Leeds found that simply watching videos of cute animals lowers stress levels by 50 percent.
3 Decreasing Depression
A survey by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute found that 74 percent of people who spend time with animals report mental health benefits and lower symptoms of depression. How? Animals provide comfort and companionship — key elements in breaking the depression cycle.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
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