A VETERAN AND A HORSE STAND inside a round pen in a quiet ranch near Santa Fe. At first, they are unsure of how to approach each other. Then something amazing happens. “This is not a cowboy program,” says Nancy De Santis, co-founder of Horses for Heroes, a nonprofit that offers a skill-set restructuring program for veterans and active military. “This is about learning about oneself and how to heal from wounds of war, from traumas, with a path specifically to go forward.”
Since 2008, De Santis and her husband, Rick Iannucci, a retired U.S. Marshal and former Army Special Forces member, have run the organization from their ranch using a concept they call “post-traumatic spiritual dissonance.”
“When there is a trauma to the human spirit, it’s that wound that people don’t see,” De Santis says.
Therapy sessions, which are free for post-9/11 veterans and active military, usually last seven days and draw people from across the country. “A military skill set can be reshaped and retooled to apply to anything,” De Santis says. The horses, she says, are key to the process. They help the person stay present and create trust, so there’s space for growth.
Originally from New York, De Santis began horseback riding at age 12. She came to live in New Mexico more than 30 years ago. When the couple founded Horses for Heroes, De Santis began to delve into trauma and its source. “What traditionally was being called post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t quite what we were seeing,” she says.
Linda Wise first arrived at the ranch in June. “In the military, we have important roles and secret security clearances,” Wise says. “All of a sudden, we get out, and we’re just labeled with all these negative things—but they didn’t see me that way.”
When Wise first stepped into the pen, she worried about the horses’ reaction, whether they would run or kick her. “I felt like my soul was so broken,” she says. “I was beaten down.” But soon, an animal approached and stood beside her “with its heart to mine,” she says, “and just put his head down and kind of embraced me.”
Wise says she had held so much back and was fearful that others wouldn’t understand. But the ranch has changed her outlook. “Sometimes it’s worth exposing your soul,” she says.
Dave Moran found Horses for Heroes in 2021 during the final months of his military career. Struggling with guilt and regret, Moran needed help, not sympathy. But when he stepped into the pen, the horse kept its distance.
“It’s because of the way I breathed, the way I stood, the way I clenched my jaw,” he says. “I was always at a level 10.” De Santis helped him realize that he seemed ready for a fight. “I was like, Oh man, that’s every day all day for me. As soon as I settled in, that horse started responding to me,” says Moran, who still frequents the ranch, where he continues to help with the horses and classes.
Thanks to the care and hard work De Santis and Iannucci have put in, Moran, Wise, and others like them have found a way forward. “Without them, I don’t know that I would be here today,” Wise says.