Texas Living

Veterans Say Camp Cowboy Turns Lives Around

By Joshua Baethge 9.12.18

Military combat is one of the most traumatic things a person can endure. But for many veterans, the real struggle begins after they leave the service. Now, thanks to Texas Farm Bureau member Scott Robison, some of them are getting the support they desperately need.

“I just saw a need for helping these guys and found out that through horses we could do just that,” Robison, a retired special forces officer, says. “A lot of guys who get out of the military are a little bit lost. This gives them a meeting place.”

That meeting place is Robison’s own ranch in Kempner, about 16 miles west of Fort Hood, where he’s been hosting Camp Cowboy for the past two years. Robison brings groups out three times a week to work with his horses and learn basic skills like horsemanship, nurturing, and training.

Veterans who go out to the ranch may be having difficulties dealing with combat injuries or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Robison says they find solace in interacting with the horses. Through the horse “gentling” process, a powerful connection is formed between man and animal. Slowly, the person learns to “speak horse” and the horse learns to trust its handler.

Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

“We see some big, strong infantry guys who’ve been through combat, and the first time they connect with a horse, they start crying,” Robison says. “It’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Tony Cole, the camp director and a retired army vet with multiple Purple Hearts, struggled to deal with the things he’d witnessed in combat. Then he discovered horse therapy.

“I just found that when I got around the horses, I was a lot calmer. I was a better person and strived to be a better person,” Cole says. “I wanted to share that experience with other people.”

Cole, who now leads classes of 11 or 12 at Camp Cowboy, says he and Robison often receive messages from attendees and their families crediting the camp for getting their lives back on track. Parents tell them they’ve got their kid back; young men and women find the strength to go back to school. Several were struggling with suicidal tendencies and other mental health issues, but the camp helped them to see a way forward. Some veterans take the three-month course multiple times, and others have come back to volunteer.

“It’s a very neat program and definitely something that I think more people would benefit from being aware of,” says Texas Farm Bureau Insurance Agent Justin Stephens, who has done business with Robison at the Copperas Cove office for 10 years. “It’s just a great thing that’s worth celebrating and being a part of.”

Geoff Harriman. Photo by Elizabeth Lavin.

“There’s a huge difference between civilians and someone who’s served,” says Geoff Harriman, a 12-year active-duty veteran who completed three tours of duty in Iraq. When Harriman returned home, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. His wife heard about the program from a friend. As a kid, Harriman dreamed of becoming a vet for large animals. Now his mornings often begin with feeding horses hay and grain. After that, it’s saddle time or an occasional trail ride. “I just like dealing with the horses,” he says. “They calm me down quite a bit and help give me a sense of normalcy.”

Former medic Dawn Alvarado (right) rides a horse during a Camp Cowboy class. Photo by Elizabeth Lavin.

Dawn Alvarado has been a part of the camp for about a year. The veteran of 28 years of service, three deployments, and two overseas assignments knew Scott Robison’s wife, Jennifer. Initially just an observer, she was eventually persuaded to become an official camp member. As a person with bad knees and joints, she was grateful to find a program that could help her ride horses despite these challenges. “If you are having a bad day or thinking about other things that bother you, you get in there with the horse and you have to pay attention,” she says. “It kind of takes you away from everything else.”

Photo by Elizabeth Lavin

Camp director Tony Cole, an Army veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury, oversees the camp. After leaving the service, he struggled with PTSD. Equine therapy helped turn his life around. He’s now dedicated to helping other facing similar challenges.

Photo by Elizabeth Lavin.

Fellow Army veteran Jason Moon recognized Cole’s name when he read an article about the camp. The two had served together in the 7th Cavalry in Iraq. Moon, who also deals with PTSD, called Cole that night. He has been a camp regular ever since. “I was put with a horse that was really like myself,” he says. “It was really anxious, scared of everything, and nervous.” Moon says the camp is a blessing, and he learns something new every time he attends. The experience has motivated him to finish his degree. After that, he would like to help start other programs similar to Camp Cowboy. In the meantime, Moon can still be found on the Robison Ranch most days, even when there are no classes scheduled. “It’s like I can’t get any work done until I go work with my horse,” he says.

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