Volunteers stand by while a veteran on horseback tosses a basketball. Photo by Nancy Wright Beasley
Clint Arrington has little patience for standing still. His brusque demeanor takes a 180-degree turn, however, when a military veteran approaches a platform near one of the five horses stabled at his farm, Lonesome Dove Equestrian Center in Powhatan County. He offers steadying hands and quiet encouragement to the veterans, transported by McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who come to take turns riding the horses that were donated for their use.
"The Veterans Administration is taking a major shift from the medical model of hospitalization to the recovery model, which is veteran-centered and holistic," says Dr. Mary Bradshaw, a clinical psychologist and coordinator for McGuire's Psychosocial Rehabilitation Recovery Center. "Our common bond with Clint is that we want to empower the vets," she adds. "Clint has done amazing work in getting vets who really feel frightened at times to be out in the community among strangers. He takes one step at a time and instills confidence in each veteran. They have a common bond, I think, through his military service."
Arrington, who spent 10 years in the National Guard, oversees the nonprofit center on Old Buckingham Road that has provided therapeutic riding to more than 1,200 vets during the past five years. Lonesome Dove ( ldequestriancenter.com ) offers its services to veterans free of charge, and McGuire provides staff support and transportation.
One of those veterans is Francis I. Gregory III, a 57-year-old Boston native who served in special operations for the Army during the latter part of the Vietnam War. Now living with his sister's family in Mechanicsville, he uses a cane to walk.
"A lot of vets at McGuire have told me about Lonesome Dove," Gregory says during a recent visit. "I decided to come out and get some fresh air, but I'm not going to ride."
He changes his mind after being gently coaxed into petting a big mare named Belle, who leans her head toward him, somehow sensing his reticence. Everyone grows quiet as Gregory eventually climbs into the saddle, steadied by Arrington's hands and those of his partner, Sherry Newark, who co-chairs Lonesome Dove and has volunteered there since 2009.
Arrington, 65, spends more than 40 hours weekly caring for the horses and then supports himself by doing odd jobs, including driving a school bus. "The first three years were hard, but the last three years we've been getting donations," he says. "We do fundraising to support an annual budget of $60,000. There are no salaries. It's all volunteer."
A cadre of volunteers prepares lunch for about 50 folks each week, and at least three volunteers assist each veteran during the ride — one to lead the horse and two to walk alongside. Fort Lee soldiers volunteer on occasion. A corporate sponsor, Capital One, provided almost 100 volunteers to make repairs at the facility.
After his ride, Gregory is all smiles, vowing to return.
"I knew he could do it," Arrington says. "When we can eliminate the fear inside of them, there's no telling what they can do. Money can't buy what I feel at those times, when I see them smile."
David Buckley, a Midlothian resident and Army veteran of the war in Iraq, was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and had considered suicide before he started riding in 2010. Buckley, 44, now volunteers at Lonesome Dove and has won awards in national riding competitions.
"When I get on a horse, it's about the only time I feel like I'm not being judged for what I've done or what I didn't do," says Buckley, who wrestles with depression and is classified as permanently disabled as a result of his PTSD. "My friend died when he stepped on an unexploded bomb on patrol," Buckley says quietly. "Several of my buddies were injured, but nothing touched me. I have a lot of survivor's guilt about that. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I do know I wouldn't be alive without Lonesome Dove. They gave me hope."
© Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved.