At just 17, Jose Rodriquez enlisted in the United States Marine Corps the same year as the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. He quickly learned that the military transforms its recruits into tools—weapons—that serve an essential purpose within a specific context—protecting the country.
In 2004, he deployed on combat duty Iraq and remained in the service until 2005. After serving four years, he decided it was time for a change. He left the military with an honorable discharge but soon discovered that the regimented routine and training for the demands of war had distorted his identity.
“I had zero idea who I was,” he said. “I tried a lot of different things to figure out what my purpose was and who I was. It was a very long and painful journey for my family and me.”
As time went on, he tried a variety of activities to try and find himself and a purpose. He joined the local fire department, trained as an EMT, and ran a boot camp at a juvenile detention center.
“I felt that if I gave back or was doing something, I was serving some kind of purpose,” he said. “But it took my family and me down a destructive path. I was in pain. I was drinking, smoking, and chewing tobacco. I was doing everything recklessly.”
Finding a path forward
In 2006, he signed up to participate in the Wounded Warrior Project—a non-profit that helps military veterans’ transition back into civilian life. The organization provides a range of services from adaptive sports to family support, financial education, and much more.
Rodriquez first enrolled in the WWP’s Project Odyssey and Soldier Ride bicycling programs, but nothing seemed to click until he decided to try a one-day, equine therapy class. He had never been around a large animal outside of a zoo, but thanks to a horse named Disney, he quickly fell in love horses.
“I was able to groom and braid her hair. I was like, I don’t know how to braid hair, but I can help brush it, and I’ll do all this other stuff,” he said. “Then we walked along inside the arena leading the horses through different obstacles. I was thinking, how am I supposed to lead this huge animal?”
Working with such a large animal builds confidence and re-instills a sense of leadership when they successfully navigate challenges together. For veterans who feel like they have lost their purpose in life, horses reignite the spark to reconnect with others—family, friends, and fellow former service members. Depending on the program and the veteran’s needs, the work is either done from the ground, in the saddle or a combination of both. The horse-human interactions help veterans like Rodriquez feel like “someone has their back,” without the pressure of having to perform or conform.
No longer lost
WWP staff members told Rodriquez he was a natural and encouraged him to consider spending more time with horses. But he didn’t rush out to find a stable offering these services until he received a call from a woman he met at the WWP program, who wanted to know if he still wanted to participate because ROCK, Ride On Center for Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides equine-assisted services to children and adults, was launching a veteran’s program.
“We live right down the street from them, and I remember seeing these huge red letters on their building but, for such a long time, I had zero clue what it was about,” Rodriguez said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, God, this is definitely a sign. This isn’t a coincidence, right? And so, I showed up.”
He remembers arriving for his initial session excited, but also reluctant to accept that this could make a difference. He didn’t want to be around other people or interact with other veterans. Staff members knew just the horse to ease his hesitation. An alpha horse named Sunny became Rodriquez’s partner.
“I fell in love; he just knew me. He looked inside my heart, saw the brokenness, and he did not care,” Rodriguez said. “If he could say something to me that day, he would’ve just been like, ‘I got you.’ In the military, it’s always been ingrained into us that you gotta have your battle buddy. You gotta watch their back. And [Sunny] just had that, and I knew it. It was the first time I felt safe.”
Rodriquez spent his entire first session grooming Sunny. He learned the basics of grooming techniques, such as starting at the top of the horse and moving to the bottom. He learned to work left to right in circular motions to get the horse clean and offer a massage.
Over time, he moved on to groundwork that included negotiating obstacles and encouraging the horses to move through a variety of activities. He graduated to riding and soon was trotting around the arena.
“Any time I’m around Sunny, it’s just him and me,” he said. “Now I’m no longer lost.”
ROCK On Veterans is built on the foundation of “soldiers helping soldiers” and utilizes the camaraderie between servicemen and -women to provide a healing environment. Fundraising efforts and grants cover 100% of the costs associated with the program, which is specifically designed for active-duty service members and veterans diagnosed with and negotiating the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, amputations, burns, and neurological impairment.
The transformative experience inspired Rodriquez to complete the training required to become a volunteer in the program. Now, he helps other veterans regain their confidence and self-worth while on horseback. Ultimately, Rodriquez wants to work toward becoming one of the horse handlers.
“I want to pay it forward and be a horse handler for other veterans that might be coming in thinking that they want nothing to do with this type of work just like I did,” he said.
Protecting those who serve
Equine therapy programs rely on support from individuals and companies looking to give back. In November, in honor of Veterans Day, Sentinel® Feed—manufactured by Kent Nutrition Group (KNG)—announced a $100,000 donation to the Wounded Warrior Project to specifically benefit veterans like Rodriguez and the equine therapy programs that helped him rediscover his sense of purpose. The Sentinel products will be provided as in-kind donations to support the therapeutic riding centers and their horses providing these critical services to veterans.
In 2021 alone, an estimated 350 veterans connected with horses through the Wounded Warrior Project, allowing them to form a strong bond with these healing animals. As equine nutritionists, the people behind Sentinel Feeds already know the value of caring for the horses who do this work, but they’re also committed to the veterans.
“Our tagline for Sentinel Horse Feed is that we are guardians of equine health,” said Kristyn Sturken from the KNG Equine Nutrition Team. “What better way to honor that than to also protect the veterans who have so bravely fought for our freedom and our country.”
Find a dealer today to honor and empower wounded warriors, America’s injured veterans.