Our Returning Troops: Back on Track, Thanks to a Therapy Horse

Meet Clifford Bruton, a retired 20-year Navy veteran who discovered a new purpose in the last place he ever expected.

- Posted on Sep 22, 2014

Guideposts: Clifford Bruton and his friend, Willie

I pulled up to a row of dusty stables and outbuildings on the outskirts of Orlando. A few horses and riders cantered around a wide dirt parade ground near the parking lot. Some horse trainers stood outside the stables surrounded by several military veterans.

I got out of my Ford Mustang GT and sat on the hood. The trainers led the veterans over to the stables and began talking to them about how to approach horses and mount them to ride.

One of the riders on the parade ground pulled up next to me and said, “Hey, Cliff, come on, get on one of the horses. We’ve got one already saddled up for you.”

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He pointed toward a golden-blonde horse with a white streak down his nose and white hair above his hooves.

“Nah, I’m good here,” I said.

Which was actually a strange thing to say, considering that this was a therapeutic horse facility called Heavenly Hooves, whose mission was to serve guys like me—veterans looking for help reintegrating into civilian life.

“They teach you to ride horses,” a fellow vet had told me at a veterans’ center where I’d been doing group therapy. “They’re looking for volunteers to see if equine therapy might work on vets too.”

I wasn’t opposed to the idea of using horses for therapy. But now that I was here, I was pretty sure that the program wasn’t for me. The fact of the matter was, I didn’t much care for horses. My Mustang was about as close to a horse as I ever wanted to get.

Horses were big. Unpredictable. Sitting there on the hood, watching them trot around the parade ground, I couldn’t imagine myself climbing up on one of those big animals.

And yet, something kept me from getting back in my car and driving away. As much as I didn’t want to get on one of those horses, I knew I needed help of some kind. Everything had fallen apart since I’d retired from the Navy.

I’d served 20 years and I would’ve gladly stayed in longer— forever if I could have—but that was the maximum for my rank, petty officer first class. I’d enlisted straight out of high school and traveled the world working as a machinist’s mate in ship engine rooms.

I became a recruiter, then a desk guy overseeing military contracts. I loved the discipline, the way everything was laid out for you and it was your job to follow orders and give your best. I was good at that. Tell me what to do, lay out goals, and I’m your man. I’ll outwork anyone.

But I’d gotten so used to military discipline I’d forgotten how to be self-disciplined. In civilian life, I was lost. I landed a job with a military contractor but the company got bought out and I was laid off. I tried going back to school but I couldn’t seem to stick with it.

Bills piled up. I got foreclosure warnings on my house. What did I do? I went to bars and drank. My fiancée left me, and I couldn’t really blame her. I wouldn’t have wanted to share a life with me either.

I wrecked two cars and lost that house. I found myself living in an apartment with no cell phone, no job, no friends. Just me and the bottle.

Out of desperation I went to the vets’ center. I found out there were other guys like me—hardworking men who, without the structure and discipline of military life, were struggling for purpose and direction. It was a relief to know I wasn’t alone.

But I still had no idea which direction to go. I’d been raised in church, and my mama always told me to pray and get right with God. I found it hard to pray now.

I’d been disobeying God for a while. I was pretty sure he was like a Navy commander—not interested in wasting time on a guy who can’t follow orders.

So what am I doing here at Heavenly Hooves? I wondered. I wasn’t feeling very heavenly. And I sure didn’t feel like getting on a horse.

“Come on over and mount up, Cliff!” the other veterans called out. I looked over and saw that another guy I knew was already on horseback. His name was Lito. One of his legs had been amputated up to his pelvic bone. And yet there he was, riding around the parade ground.

Suddenly I felt ashamed. If Lito could ride one of these horses, what was my excuse?

Nervously I got up from my car and approached the trainers. “Okay, I’ll give it a try,” I said.

One of the trainers led me to the parade ground. “Cliff, this is Willie,” she said, stopping beside the golden horse with the white streak down his nose. “He’s what we call a palomino. He’s a big, sweet baby. You two will get along just fine.”

Keeping an eye on Willie’s hooves, I put my foot in a stirrup and heaved myself up. Willie didn’t move, though I flailed and huffed and puffed like an idiot. At last I made it into the saddle. Wow, I was high up! But Willie felt solid beneath me. Calm. Steady. Just sitting on his back calmed me too.

The rest of the afternoon we learned the basics. Willie trotted. He galloped. I cried, “Whoa!” like a cowboy. Every new thing we tried made me nervous. But somehow Willie seemed to sense my feelings. I could tell he wouldn’t let me fall.

By the end of the day we were riding in formation, like a drill team, keeping close together in a straight line. I was so focused on keeping Willie going the right direction I forgot to be afraid. Heck, I forgot all my problems.

For one afternoon I felt in control of myself again. It was the opposite of drinking. I felt like I could do something. Not just shove it all away.

“I’ll see you next week,” I said, patting Willie on the nose.

I did see Willie the next week. And the week after that. It was an eight-week program. We beginners got better and better. Soon we were executing complex maneuvers on our horses.

Going through obstacle courses. Opening and closing gates from horseback. Trotting around cones. Teaming up with other guys to raise a big A-frame with ropes. The minute the course ended I signed up for another one.

Willie and I got close. I had no idea horses were so sensitive and intuitive. He seemed to know when I was having a bad day. When I needed to go slow and when I was ready to try something new. We had a lot in common.

Willie wasn’t like some of the other horses, who always wanted to lead the formation. He was like me, good at following directions.

Which meant I had to give him directions. Riding around the dirt parade ground one afternoon, guiding Willie through one obstacle after another on the course, I thought back to my Navy days.

Was it really true, what I always told myself, that I was just a follower? That I never learned how to guide myself?

Now that I thought about it, in the Navy you can’t just shut your brain off and follow orders. On a ship, far out to sea, everyone has to take initiative. Like, when there’s a shipboard fire, you can’t call the fire department and wait for help. You have to save the ship.

Everyone onboard has to work together. It is more like give and take. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

Is that how it is with God? I wondered. Maybe God didn’t want me just to follow orders. Maybe he wanted me to look for him. To reach out for him and let him into my life even when I was a mess.

And maybe God was reaching out to me too. Right now. Here, on this dirt parade ground, with this gentle palomino who’d become the highlight of every week for me.

When my second session at Heavenly Hooves ended I signed up for college again. This time I stuck with it. I graduated with a degree in criminal justice and decided my next step would be graduate school so I could become a history teacher.

I started volunteering at Heavenly Hooves, sometimes working with other vets, sometimes just cleaning the stables. Boy, I sure know that look in veterans’ eyes when they first show up and see the horses. It’s the look that says, No way.

“Trust me,” I tell them. “These horses will take care of you. They’ll teach you to take care of yourself.”

I still see Willie every week. He knows my voice. He whinnies when he hears me coming. Sometimes he’ll nudge other horses out of the way to make sure I’m the one who gets to ride him. We make a good team. Both of us like to mix leading and following.

I have a feeling Willie knows just as well as I do who the real Leader is. He taught me that in faith, in life, in everything, really, it’s not just about leading and following. It’s about the relationship. We give our best for each other. We trust that God is always giving his best for us.

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