Veterans Conquer Depression with Equine Therapy

Male Veteran standing beside a horse.

Marine Corps Veteran Ruben Vargas and his pal Dandy.

Twenty-eight-year-old Katie Hudgin said she sometimes walks over to her favorite horse, Diesel, and buries her face in his neck.

“It’s like I’m giving him a hug and he’s hugging me back,” said the Army Veteran. “He’s my buddy. If he even sees me look at another horse he gets mad at me.  He doesn’t want me to love on other horses.”

Diesel and numerous other horses inhabit a magical place called Windhaven Therapeutic Riding near Vancouver, Wash. It was established back in January, after two years of preparation, for the sole purpose of providing equine therapy to Veterans. 

Not all of Windhaven’s clients are referred there by the VA, but a lot of them are, like Katie Hudgin.

Failing at Life

“I hurt my hip when I was in the service,” she said. “I have a three-year-old daughter and I couldn’t even get down on the floor and play with her.  I was flunking out of school.  I couldn’t hold down a job.   I felt like I was failing as a mother, and as a person.  I felt like I was failing at life.  I got to the point where I didn’t want to hurt anymore.”

Then she discovered Windhaven, and Diesel. Her depression has lifted; her pain has subsided. 

“I was taking seven or eight pills a day,” she said. “Muscle relaxers, anti-depressants, all kinds of pills.  Now I’m down to just two pills.”

“I got to the point where I didn’t want to hurt anymore.”

Hudgin said the healing connection between human and horse occurs during the grooming process, when the Veteran is in close physical proximity to the animal.

“Horses are like big mirrors,” she explained. “If I’m grooming Diesel and he’s antsy, it makes me look inside myself because he’s reflecting back what I’m feeling. He’s mimicking my emotions.  So I look inside myself, and change what’s going on inside me.  I calm myself down.”

Army Veteran Katie Hudgin and her favorite horse, Diesel

Army Veteran Katie Hudgin and her favorite horse, Diesel

Hudgin is currently on her way to becoming a full-time instructor at Windhaven so she can spend her days helping other Veterans who are in the same emotional boat she was in.

“This place changed my life,” she said. “It saved my life.”

And it seems life just keeps getting better. “Now my daughter, Sheri Kay, comes up to the therapy barn with me and helps me,” Hudgin beamed.  “We’ve bonded over horses!  We’ve connected.   I feel like I’m a good mother now.” 

By Veterans, For Veterans

Nancy McFarlane, a recreation therapist and yoga instructor at the Portland VA in Oregon, said equine therapy seems to be the perfect answer for certain Veterans coping with post-traumatic stress and other disorders, both mental and physical.

“When you treat horses well they connect with you,” she said. “They trust you. A relationship forms.  My patients who return from Windhaven tell me they haven’t felt so relaxed in months.  They tell me they’re sleeping better at night.  They can’t say why, exactly.  All they know is that they feel better…

“Another good thing about Windhaven,” she added, “is that it’s run by Veterans, for Veterans. The founders, Denice and her husband Rodger, are retired military.  Most of their volunteers are nurses or former military, and they’re very tuned in to Veterans with PTSD.  That’s great news for the patients we refer to Windhaven.” 

Nancy McFarlane 
Nancy McFarlane  

“The horses are the therapists here,” said Windhaven’s co-founder and Operations Manager Rodger Morrison. “You’re not just learning how to groom the horse, or ride the horse.  The horse is changing something inside you.”


Morrison said he and his team have a fail-safe method for hooking up each Veteran with exactly the right equine partner.

“We do join-ups,” he explained. “It’s where we put the Vets and the horses together, and eventually each horse gravitates to a particular Veteran. The Veteran doesn’t choose the horse; the horse chooses the Veteran.  And the horse is never wrong.”  

Sixty-two year-old Ruben Vargas is a Marine Corps Veteran who, like Kate Hudgin, was suffering from debilitating physical pain accompanied by depression.

“I look forward to going out to Windhaven every Saturday,” he said. “This place has been really good for me. It’s all Vets out there so we can talk to each other.  It’s like a family gathering.  It helps me a lot.”

And, like Katie Hudgin, Vargas has paired up with a horse who seems to be a perfect match for him.

“His name is Dandy,” said the former Marine. “He’s kind of like me, stubborn and hard-headed.  So we get along good.  And when I’m grooming him or walking him around I’m not thinking about my pain.  I’m not thinking about it at all.”

To learn more about Windhaven Therapeutic Riding, visit

To find out more about mental health programs offered by the VA, visit the Veterans Resource Center at

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Women Veterans: Help for Postpartum Depression

Postpartum Depression Affects One-in-Seven New Mothers

Postpartum Depression Affects One-in-Seven New Mothers

The birth of a baby is a life-changing event that can trigger all kinds of emotions from happiness and joy to jitters and fear. It can also lead to something you might not expect — postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression — a depression that occurs after having a baby — is the most common complication of giving birth. It affects one in seven new mothers. Left untreated, postpartum depression can have long-lasting negative results, harming the health of new mothers, their babies, and their families.

It could be the “baby blues” or it could be postpartum depression.

After giving birth, many women have the “baby blues,” which are feelings of worry, sadness, and tiredness that usually last a few days. Symptoms of postpartum depression are like those of “baby blues,” however, postpartum depression symptoms are more intense and can last for many months.

Are you at risk for postpartum depression?

Women Veterans commonly suffer from depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder after military service. Veterans who become pregnant have an increased likelihood of having a mental health issue, which puts them at a higher risk for postpartum depression. With more women serving in the military than ever before, it is important to support women Veterans by providing information and treatment options.

Postpartum depression is not your fault.

Postpartum depression is never anyone’s fault. Pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for a child can be a challenge for all parents, physically and mentally. Postpartum depression affects more than half a million American women each year and can affect any woman who becomes pregnant — women with easy pregnancies or difficult pregnancies, first-time moms and mothers with one or more children, women who are married and women who are not, and women of any age, race, ethnicity, culture, education, or income.

Only about 15 percent of women who suffer from postpartum depression receive professional care. There are many reasons that women do not seek treatment, including misdiagnosis, denial, and lack of access to care.

Know the symptoms.

Postpartum depression can begin anytime within the first year after giving birth. Signs you have postpartum depression may include extended periods (two weeks or more) of:

  • Feeling sad, down, or depressed
  • Losing interest in what you usually enjoy
  • Difficulty in thinking or decision making
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of energy
  • Frequently thinking about death or suicide

If you think you may have postpartum depression, seek help.

VA and Women’s Health Services offers many care options to help you get treatment for postpartum depression:

MomMoodBooster. A free online program designed to help women Vets recover from postpartum depression. Women complete six sessions and receive calls from a phone coach.

Anonymous Screening Tool

Make The Connection. Kim, an Air Force Veteran, shares her experience with postpartum depression that went undiagnosed for years.

Women Veterans Call Center. Chat online or call 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-829-6636) Monday through Saturday to get help about VA benefits and services, including postpartum depression treatment.

Veterans Crisis Line. Chat online, send a text to 838255, or call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

VA Medical Centers Seek therapy and treatment options tailored to women Veterans’ needs.

Maternal Mental Health. Seek postpartum support during pregnancy AND postpartum. Online resources are available or call 1-800-944-4PPD (4773).

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VA Nurse Helps Veterans Families, in Her Free Time

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AF Veteran Helping Veterans Out of Addiction

two male veterans, seated, having a conversation.

Peer Support Specialist DeWayne Raulerson shares a laugh with Army Veteran Vernon Williams at the Tucson VA. Photo by Clifford Baser

A little over six years ago Willie DeWayne Raulerson woke up beside a dumpster. The dumpster was conveniently located behind his favorite bar. 

“It was called ‘The Driftwood,’” he said. “I’d been drinking there for 25 years.  Everybody I drank with loved me because I kept them entertained.  I was a comedian; I made them laugh.”

But on some level Raulerson knew the laughter and good times could not continue forever. At some point the party was going to end.  And one night it did, beside the dumpster.

“After 50 years of drinking it took this one man to flip the switch in my brain.”

“I always had a premonition about that dumpster,” he mused. “I told myself that if I ever woke up next to that dumpster, it would mean I’d finally hit bottom.”

He had hit the bottom. Raulerson’s dumpster premonition had become reality.

“I woke up that morning in my usual stupor,” said the 72-year-old Air Force Veteran. “I got on one knee and all I said was, ‘God help me.’ I called my wife of 48 years, Darleen, and asked her to give me a ride to the VA…

“That decision changed my life,” he added.

But not so fast. Raulerson’s addiction still had one last trick up its sleeve.

One West

“I got here at the Tucson VA on a Friday afternoon,” he said. “But I was already planning my weekend.  It was one of those three-day weekends, and I was pissed that I wouldn’t be able to drink.  So my plan was to go out, get drunk and come back to the VA later.”

But it seems the in-take specialist there at the Tucson VA had a different plan for Raulerson.

“She had me sit in this wheelchair,” he said. “Then she and this policeman wheeled me down to a place they call ‘One West.’  Everybody knows what One West is.”

For those who don’t, ‘One West’ is the Tucson VA’s kinder, gentler version of the Drunk Tank –a safe place where alcoholics can dry out, rest up a bit and perhaps re-evaluate their lives.

“I was there for three days,” Raulerson said. “Then they took me to a place called ‘Stabilization.’  I was there two months.”

From there Raulerson checked himself into Tucson’s in-house Substance Abuse Treatment Program, where he began attending classes, AA meetings, group sessions and individual therapy sessions.

His road to recovery had begun.


Peer Support Specialist DeWayne Raulerson routinely shares his personal story of recovery with fellow Veterans at the Tucson VA.  Photo by Clifford Baser
Peer Support Specialist DeWayne Raulerson routinely shares his personal story of recovery with fellow Veterans at the Tucson VA.  Photo by Clifford Baser

The Light Switch

Raulerson said he’s still grateful to VA in-take specialist who ruined his plans for an alcohol-fueled three-day weekend spent at the Driftwood.

“If she had let me leave that Friday afternoon I wouldn’t have come back,” he admitted. “I know it. I wouldn’t have come back.”     

The Air Force Veteran said he’s also eternally grateful to someone else there at the Tucson VA: his addiction therapist.

“After 50 years of drinking it took this one man to flip the switch in my brain. He told me I did not ever have to drink again as long as I live. At first I thought he was an arrogant jerk.  But he just struck me somehow, and I started listening to him…

“He’s a Veteran himself, with 16 years of recovery, so he didn’t play around. He told me, ‘If you want help, I’ll help you. If you don’t want help, if you’re not done drinking, go back out and finish.’

Tough words, but they struck home with Raulerson. “I said to myself, ‘This makes sense. I might ought to listen to this man.

And so he listened.

A Different Ending

“I became teachable,” he said. “I was able to take my addiction out of my brain and move forward into a new life.  I learned what gratitude is.  My relationship with my wife, my children and my grandchildren changed from abandonment to trust and respect.” 

He continued: “I realize that at my age I do not have enough time left to make up for the pain I have caused in the lives of the people I love and who love me.  I’ve made my amends with that.  I cannot rewrite the book of my life, but thanks to the VA I can change the ending.”

Raulerson is changing the ending by paying forward what VA has given him. He’s now one of seven full-time peer support specialists at the Tucson VA, helping other Veterans find their way out of addiction.  He’s been at it, nearly every day, for six years.

“They’re actually paying me to do something I love to do,” he said. “I’ve found my purpose in life. And by the grace of God that’s how I stay clean and sober, listening to these Veterans who come here looking for help.  I listen to their stories and I tell them my story.  I’m here to navigate them through their recovery and let them know they are not alone.”

But success can be elusive, especially when it comes to beating addiction. Raulerson admitted that most Veterans seeking recovery don’t find it, at least not right away. 

“Right now I’m teaching a class of 18 in-patients and numerous out-patients,” he said. “Three of them will make it if they’re lucky.  But I don’t get discouraged.  If I can help one person then I’ve done all I can do.”

Raulerson said he encourages anyone suffering with addiction to get the help they need now, not later. “Time is something you can never get back,” he said. “Ask for help now, because the definition of courage is ‘doing the next right thing even though you are afraid.’

“I was 65-years-old and drank for 50 years prior to coming to the VA for help,” he added. “I just want Vets to know that it’s never too late.”

Are you a Veteran suffering with alcohol or drug addiction or know a Veteran who is? VA can help.  Visit

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Marine Veteran is VA’s Male Volunteer of the Year

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