Ranch & Reata Magazine | A.J. Mangum | September 11, 2014 | Link to Article

Horsemanship offers veterans relief from the traumas of combat.

In 2002, Chris Lowe was a teenager from a small Texas town, a 19-year-old community college student with an ambition to serve his country. Following a family tradition of military service, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines. Two years later, he was in Iraq, on a combat deployment in the chaotic hotbed of Fallujah, providing security for an explosives disposal team, when an enemy mortar exploded just feet away from him. Only luck saved his life.

Marine veteran Chris Lowe competes in pole bending at a Jinx McCain event. PHOTOS COURTESY SEMPER FI FUND
Marine veteran Chris Lowe competes in pole bending at a Jinx McCain event.

There were other close calls, other mortar attacks, concussions suffered in IED explosions. Lowe’s personality began to change. He startled easily. He became quick to anger. His short-term memory began to fail him. Through years of additional service in the Middle East, Central America and Africa, the Marine was haunted by his combat experiences, but his symptoms of post-traumatic stress remained unrecognized. He lived in a constant state of anger, and drank heavily, typically consuming a bottle of vodka a day.

In 2010, Lowe was diagnosed with PTSD and, while stateside at California’s Camp Pendleton, learned of a horsemanship program – part of the Marines’ Team Semper Fi athletic program for wounded veterans – that promised a chance at something that he’d come to think unattainable: relief.

Lowe had grown up around horses, but had little experience as a rider. Still, he readily accepted the theory that the animals could serve in therapeutic roles that counselors and physicians couldn’t fill. He began riding and progressed to competing in timed and cattle events. Lowe found that, despite riding’s physicality, forward progress required little more than a willingness to connect with a horse.

Part of Team Semper Fi, an athletics program for wounded veterans, the Jinx McCain program offers veterans the chance to make riding part of their recovery efforts.
Part of Team Semper Fi, an athletics program for wounded veterans, the Jinx McCain program offers veterans the chance to make riding part of their recovery efforts.

“I couldn’t explain it,” he says. “Being around a horse, I never thought about any type of trauma that had happened in my life. These animals are amazing in the way they can relieve pain and stress.”

Named for the late Col. Jinx McCain, a U.S. Marine, four-time Purple Heart recipient, and horseman, the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program got its start at Camp Pendleton in 2011, offering wounded veterans the opportunity to incorporate riding into their efforts at physically and emotionally recovering from their combat experiences. Participants come from all branches of the military, and must qualify for Team Semper Fi’s athletic roster; most suffer from PTSD or are recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

On a rotating basis, around a dozen veterans learn horsemanship fundamentals at San Pasqual Valley Ranch, a horse-training operation and equestrian-events venue outside Escondido, northeast of San Diego. With longtime professional horseman Lynn Devenport, based at San Pasqual Valley, leading the effort, newly arriving riders are divided into groups based on their experience levels as riders. When the entire incoming class has a firm grasp on horsemanship fundamentals, work begins on learning arena events – barrel racing, pole bending, cattle sorting and roping – and preparations begin for the Cowboy Challenge, a day of competition in which members of the winning team of riders earn trophy buckles.

“They progress in leaps and bounds,” Devenport explains. “The first day, we can barely get some of them to speak. On the last day, they’re urging each other on to do better. Seeing how happy they are at the end, it’s exciting.”

This past summer, 19 veterans in the McCain program traveled to Wyoming for a four-day cattle drive near the Big Horn Mountains. The outing paired recovering veterans, the vast majority with significant riding experience, with professional horsemen and ranch cowboys; no counselors or psychologists were on hand, yet participants extolled the therapeutic value of the experience.
“Most of the guys say it’s the best therapy they’ve had, being away from all the hustle and bustle,” says horseman Mo Smith, a volunteer with the McCain program. “Once in a while we’ll all talk in a group, but more often there are one-on-one conversations where the veterans can talk through some pretty strong issues.”

Smith travels throughout the country to connect with veterans in need of help, “tough cases” he brings to his North Carolina ranch to ride, box and work out. Some stay for months at a time. The experience, Smith says, “gets these guys grasping for life again, feeling like they’re assets and not liabilities. Working with horses, they build the confidence they need to go out and tackle things in life.”

Riding and the personal connections made through the horsemanship program, Smith contends, forge much-needed support systems for veterans, many of whom lack the equivalent in their home environments. The horses themselves often come to be part of that support network.

“A horse can recognize what a person is experiencing, and can calm that individual down,” says Casey Fisher, Team Semper Fi’s program manager. “There’s something triggered in the brain. It’s almost a soul connection. Everything else disappears, the world quiets down, and the veteran can focus on riding the horse. Chris Lowe is a good example. He’s been through a lot and had a hard time with things, but being around horses, he’s become a different person. He’s positive, smiling, relaxed.”

Lowe, who left the Marines in 2012, acknowledges the transformation. Drinking, he says, is no longer an issue for him. The repetitive nature of training for certain horsemanship events has helped improve his memory. And, interacting with horses has influenced his relationships with other people.

“I’ve learned to be calmer,” Lowe says. “If I approach a horse with a calm demeanor, he’s more likely to approach me. It’s helped me get acclimated to being a civilian again.”

Lowe now lives in Saginaw, Texas, outside Fort Worth. After considering a career in the medical field – a profession he ruled out because of the aversion he’s developed to human trauma – Lowe is instead studying to become a veterinary assistant. He hopes to one day work in an equine practice.

A.J. Mangum is the editor of Ranch & Reata. He lives in Colorado. Learn more about the Jinx McCain program and Team Semper Fi at

Check out video from the 2011 Wounded Warrior Cutting Horse Classic, featuring Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program participants.