Finding a New Path
Veteran finds relief in horsemanship program
Story by Leah Barbour • Photo by Kevin Hudson
He joined the US Marine Corps to serve and protect the country, and, as a Marine in Iraq, Lance McElhenney felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof.
“Unless you had a gun and a tape measure, you couldn’t prove me wrong,” he laughs. “When I was deployed, everything went a mile a minute. Everything was going as fast as it could be.
“When I got home, it was like a sudden hit on the ground.”
Injured by a mortar fragment during his deployment in 2004, McElhenney received the Purple Heart. But the challenge of returning to civilian life had only just begun. Despite his status as a survivor and war hero, McElhenney was looking for relief—like many other veterans, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“When I was active, there was a huge stigma with any kind of mental issues,” McElhenney explains. “With PTSD, there’s such a stigma, and it’s unknown as to what will help it, if anything. One common misconception about PTSD is that we are crazy and dangerous. But for me, it’s isolation—I would be at home and not see anybody.”
McElhenney, a Clay County native who now lives in Webster County, formed a relationship with Ken McRae, then director of MSU’s Center for America’s Veterans. Now headed by Brian Locke, the center’s outreach programs include a focus on reaching out to local veterans to inform them of the opportunities MSU provides for service members.
“Lance was one of our former student veterans, and, when Lori first spoke with me about the idea of a veteran’s program, Lance was the first person to come to mind,” Locke remembers. “He just seemed like the perfect fit, and the program has continued to grow and flourish based on what was learned through his experience.
“Lance has maintained his involvement with the program, which has adapted and grown to meet the unique needs of our local veteran population. This is one of my favorite veteran programs we offer and one that I have personally completed.”
“It’s a giant stress-reliever; when I’m dealing with my horse, the world fades away. There’s no judgment, no fear.”
— Lance McElhenney
After receiving a recommendation from the center, McElhenney reached out to Lori Irvin, an MSU Extension Service associate who was preparing to pilot Extension’s first Veterans Horsemanship Program for service members. The goal was to provide a safe, healing environment through a natural horsemanship program for veterans to learn to groom and ride horses.
“I was here from the get-go in 2017 for the first program started for veterans to see if it would actually help,” McElhenney remembers. “It’s a giant stress-reliever; when I’m dealing with my horse, the world fades away. There’s no judgment, no fear.”
Irvin, daughter of a Mississippi Army National Guard master sergeant, says her own father experienced PTSD and depression after he returned from Desert Storm in the 1990s. He had also served in Korea decades earlier.
“I didn’t want to see anyone else go through what he went through. He didn’t have anyone to talk to,” Irvin explains. “This program was formed to help ease the transition veterans go through when they come home. Veterans choose their own horses, and the horses give the veterans what they need.”
McElhenney smiles as he describes his horse.
“I wanted the horse that was old and ornery,” he says. “With him, I can talk to him about whatever I want to, and he doesn’t share my secrets. If I feel the need or desire to vent, I can. I’m not side-byside with a bunch of people. I have the privacy with him to allow the venting and be free.
“Horses have their own personality,” McElhenney continues. “If you treat them right, they’re going to treat you right. It helps dealing with real people: if you respect them, they’ll respect you back. The horse will never lie to you, and I get physical activity and socialization with other veterans.”
MSU Extension’s Veterans Horsemanship Program is making a difference in McElhenney’s life, and he hopes other veterans will also take advantage of the program.