Lakeland Nonprofit Offers Equine Therapy to Help Veterans
by TIM CRAIG
photos provided by THE VETERANS RANCH
A Veterans Ranch YouTube episode from August tells you everything you need to know about the nonprofit.
On the video, there’s a man with glasses and a goatee, black hat and black shirt, and he’s talking about how this episode is different; saying they need donations for an immediate need.
“We’ve got some needs that we’ve got to meet for a veteran in the local community,” says the host, J.R. Smith, founder and vice president of The Veterans Ranch, a nonprofit organization that uses equine therapy to help veterans and put an end to veteran’s suicide.
The clip is an apt introduction to the Lakeland nonprofit in two ways. First, Smith speaks in a tone and style that is at once friendly, passionate, and direct, reflecting the organization’s personality.
Second, he’s trying to raise money for someone in immediate need, meaning the organization is flexible enough to try different things to reach its mission.
“We didn’t make the goal through the video, but I thought we should give it a try and see what happens,” says Smith. “We were able to raise the money in another way and help in that situation, though.”
A direct, well-stated goal and the flexibility to try to reach it through different channels has been a hallmark of The Veterans Ranch since it started in October 2017.
The idea for The Veterans Ranch came scribbled on a bedside note — a barely legible “ranch” on the page — written at 3 a.m. Smith, along with his wife, Pam, had been looking for a way to help veterans.
“My dad was a Vietnam vet, my uncle was in the Navy, and my grandfather was in World War II,” says Smith. “We had been looking at ways to help, but there are a million dog programs — and they are doing great work — and we didn’t want to become part of the white noise.”
Smith did a lot of reflecting and praying on the word “ranch,” but just couldn’t find a way to fill in the blanks. Then came a lunch at Chili’s.
“We sat down and the light bulb turned on,” says Smith. “I spent the whole lunch writing on napkins. Thirty napkins later, I had it all down, and, by December 2017, we were a nonprofit.”
The mission of The Veterans Ranch is to assist veterans and families through Equine Therapy, which involves equine therapy that promotes human physical and mental health.
According to an October 2021 article in the New York Times, the overall suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times as much as the rate for civilians. However, among veterans aged 18-35, the rate is 2.5 times that of all civilians.
“The statistic when we started out was that there are 22 veterans a day committing suicide,” says Smith. “What people don’t share is that that number is up post-Covid.”
To combat that, the nonprofit uses equine therapy, usually capped with day-long trail rides, helping the veterans build a bond of trust with an animal that doesn’t naturally trust.
“Horses, when it comes to the fight or flight instinct, are flight 99 percent of the time,” says Smith. “So, we start by giving the veterans a grooming brush and showing them how to get the trust. We try to get them to stop thinking about everything that is going on with their lives and to just make a connection.”
The therapy works, too. Smith recalls a time from one of their rides when a veteran nearly had a breakdown — yelling at his wife about how he hated the idea of being on a horse and wanting to just go home. A fellow veteran took charge, says Smith, and cajoled the veteran into talking about the problem.
“He said, ‘Guys, I’m from the Bronx, I have no idea what I’m doing,’” says Smith. “Once he was able to talk about it, we were able to get him comfortable. About an hour later he gets back from his ride grinning ear to ear. He even asked if he could go on the afternoon ride, as well.
“At the end of the day, he was able to build a better bond with his wife,” says Smith, “and he was able to stick his chest out a little further because he overcame a fear.”
Duane Stamm of the U.S. Marine Corps had the opportunity recently to see firsthand the transformative power of equine therapy when he and members of the Tampa VA Network spent the day with The Veterans Ranch.
“I learned that a horse can sense a person’s heart rhythm and connect on a level that is unlike that of any other creature,” he says.
“My experience that day allowed me to be in the moment and find a peace that is difficult to obtain in our fast-paced world.”
Stamm underscores the importance of finding that peace and the program’s unique ability to facilitate that.
“I appreciate how the program can be altered to fit a particular person’s needs
because we are not all alike and neither are the horses.”
Heading into 2020, the nonprofit was starting to gain momentum. Smith and the board were beginning to look for property for a permanent home. Then Covid hit.
“After Covid, the prices of property in Florida went up,” says Smith. “We had to put the idea of getting our own property on the backburner.”
Now, The Veterans Ranch is focusing on getting the word of what it does out to the public, particularly in Polk County, which has upwards of 30,000 veterans, according to Smith.
“The main thing we’re doing is trying to let people know we’re here,” he says. “We’re the hometown nonprofit, serving the veterans in our backyard.”
Outside of Polk County, The Veterans Ranch teams up with the South Florida Reining Horse Association in Tampa, The Tampa Chapter of Cowboys for Christ and exhibits at booths at events like the Florida Gun Show at the Fairgrounds, as well as other events in Orlando and Palmetto.
The Veterans Ranch has also focused its fundraising in two key ways.
“If we can get 20,000 people from Polk County giving $22 a month we could build our own facility and reach more veterans,” he says. “That’s less than one average family’s visit to a fast-food restaurant.”
Another fundraiser called “Do you give a buck about veterans?” uses a Give-Send-Go campaign.
“If a million people gave $1, imagine the effect,” he says.
Learn more at theveteransranch.org