Inside a large, sand-filled arena situated in the middle of an orange grove, a grey gelding named Chrome and two other horses help veterans and active-duty soldiers heal the invisible wounds of combat.
The horses are part of a program called H.O.P.E for Warriors, which stands for Human Opportunity Partnering with Equines.
It's one of more than a half-dozen equine-assisted therapy programs in Southern California that focuses on treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But the healing doesn't come from riding the animals. Instead, it's about just being around them.
"When I had road rage, had a lot of anger, by coming here. How these horses interact with me and others - it pretty much gave me a different perspective about life," says Camarillo resident, David Parker, 52, a veteran of the First Gulf War. "To be able to control my anger and let it go."
Dan Riley, 65, of Ojai can relate. He was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1968. Since then, he's struggled with anxiety and sleepless nights. But it was only a few years ago that he realized he had PTSD.
Initially he sought traditional talk therapy, which has helped, he says. But when he’s around the horses, he's able to drop more defenses than he can in the therapist's office. And that, he says, has opened him up to a deeper level of healing.
"This has been very releasing for me," says Riley. "To come out here and to be able to talk about things that have been buried for over 40 years."
The Ojai program - funded solely by donations collected by its parent organization, Reins of H.O.P.E. - is free to veterans, active duty soldiers and their families, says founder Julie Sardonia.
“Horses will mirror what emotional energy is going on with a client, so if they’re angry or agitated or maybe withdrawn, the horses will act that out," says Sardonia, a licensed family and marriage therapist of 20 years.
What's more, she says, horses have another trait that makes them well-suited to therapy work with veterans: because they’re prey animals, they rely on heightened vigilance for survival – just like combat-trained soldiers.
"They are hard-wired to stay very, very vigilant – at all times," says Marie Ortiz, an equine specialist who works in the arena with Sardonia and the soldiers. "But they’re also hard-wired to be able to calm themselves quickly because they’ll just plain wear out if they stay that vigilant."
"In combat zones, we’re trained to have that vigilance level up all the time – be ready," says Riley. "Then when you come back here you need to transition into civilian life."
But unlike horses, learning how to relax back into civilian life doesn't come easy for many combat veterans, including the nearly 300 vets and enlisted soldiers who've worked with the H.O.P.E. for Warriors program since it began in 2010.
"That's what's so good about out here," Riley says, "This is helping us transition."
On a recent morning, Sardonia and Ortiz guide Riley and Parker through an equine therapy session. Both men have been attending the weekly lessons for more than a year.
Today's session begins with the men recreating their battlefield past with a symbolic war zone they build with assortment of very un-warlike props – including stuffed animals and multi-colored, foam swimming pool.
Armed with a small, military-style shovel, Parker digs what he says is a protective trench alongside a circle of neon orange caution cones that for him represents the battle zone where he and two dozen other soldiers were seriously wounded by artillery fire 22 years ago.
"It was pitch dark out in the desert when the artillery came it just kind of lit up the sky," Parker says. "And that’s all I think about even when I get up in the morning, you know, turning the light off and on you know just always put me back in that thought, always.”
In the arena next to him, Riley, a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, constructs his symbolic combat past.
" I usually take a couple things to represent the blades of a chopper," he says as he places two of the swimming pool noodles in the sand, creating an "X" formation.
As the men build, the horses come close to observe. Then– with no guidance from the therapists – they move to opposite ends of the arena and face outward, just as they would if they were standing sentry over their own herd.
"The horses got our backs right now," Riley points out. "All three horses are looking in different directions so we’re safe. We can open up be vulnerable, talk about the things that we have deep inside that we need to bring out."
Sardonia attaches a 3-by-5 card with the word, “SUPPORT” written on it to the nose band of Chrome’s halter. With a little help from Ortiz the men usher the horse into the combat zone.
"Look where you want to go with your support and start moving in that direction," Ortiz tells them.
The men - each holding a lead line attached to Chrome - guide the gelding through the battlefield and into a serenity triangle they've arranged in the sand that consists of three ropes fashioned into a pyramid representing physical, mental and spiritual balance.
Sardonia says work like this with the horses can prove invaluable to traditional therapists and their patients.
"Myself and other therapists can now go back into their office and work for weeks almost months with one session that went on with that member in there because it's so deep and rich with metaphors and insights," she say.
About 45-minutes later, Sardonia ends the lesson. But it appears Chrome isn’t quite done.
As the humans retreat to a shaded picnic table, the grey gelding remains quietly standing in the serenity triangle and looks at the humans as if to tell the former soldiers that one day they, too, will stand comfortably in a place of peace.