For U.S. Army veteran Michael Feldhaus, the few hours he spends each week caring for Regal Belle, a sweet-faced Arabian horse, bring a sense of calm.
Feldhaus, a civil engineering student, was paired with Regal Belle through the Horses for Heroes program, which matched 10 veterans with five horses at the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center this semester.
“It’s a lot of work,” Feldhaus said. “I enjoy it because it’s soothing and peaceful. The horse can pick up on anything that you were feeling or thinking whatsoever. So, it’s best to always be calm and patient and leaving everything that stresses you out at the door before you see your horse. If other veterans joined the program, it would really help them with the depression, anxiety, and PTSD.”
Cal Poly Pomona’s Horses for Heroes program resumed this semester after the COVID-19 pandemic, welcoming its second cohort of 10 military veterans as they transition to student life. A partnership between the university’s Veterans Resource Center and the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center, it provides student veterans with the opportunity to focus on the present and their wellbeing while learning about equine behavior, horse handling and horse health.
“Horses have no expectations of people, and something as simple as petting a horse means a big deal to horse,” said Cheyenne Thayer, student activities coordinator at the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center. “Many of the student veterans also have always loved horses but were never able to enjoy horses. This program finally gives student veterans the opportunity to learn more about horses and develop a life-changing bond.”
The bond was instant between Regal Belle and another one of her humans, Navy veteran and accounting student Jacqueline Ochoa. By their second day together she was nudging Ochoa for selfies, turning it into a ritual each time they see each other. Under her care Ochoa said Regal Belle has learned to trust people, build up confidence and feel at ease being groomed. Ochoa sometimes speaks her greetings in French to Regal Belle, an homage to her name.
“The most rewarding thing about this program is seeing Regal Belle develop trust and as well as mutual respect with me,” Ochoa said. “I see how she depends on us humans, to groom her and to keep her hooves clean. Doing this for her helps me to see how we take our self-care for granted.”