The Magazine for Southwestern Agriculture
Official Publication of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association

Article: Veterans, Ranchers Working Together to Help Returning Soldiers

Horses for Heroes – Cowboy UP!, a Santa Fe-based program to help veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan by using horses and horseback riding, is bringing New Mexico ranchers and veterans together. Free to veterans and active military, returning soldiers learn to care for and ride horses, then learn other ranch tasks, including working cattle, and eventually assist in workings of participating ranches.

Program founder Rick Iannucci, former Green Beret and retired U.S. Marshal and now a rancher himself set up the initiative based on similarities between military and ranching cultures that he felt could help his fellow veterans.

“The values of the ranching community are almost an overlay of military values,” he said. “The no-nonsense attitude and work ethic are exactly the kind of atmosphere our veterans are used to. It’s something you just don’t get hanging at the mall or working at any many other jobs.”

Veterans suffering from both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or physical combat injuries from service in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (OEF) are welcomed into the program but there are participants who have seen combat in Bosnia and Somalia too. “I saw a big need – soldiers are coming home in droves, and there are few outlets to help them,” Rick said. “We take regular people, send them over to Iraq and Afghanistan and train them how to fight. Then, we bring them home, sometimes without even a thank you, and expect them to turn it off and reintegrate automatically. It’s not happening.”

Today’s veterans go directly into combat when they land on the ground, seeing an average of 1500 days of combat. In comparison, soldiers serving in World War II saw an average of 120 days of combat, and Vietnam Veterans saw an average of 240 - 260 days of combat.

Horses for Heroes – Cowboy UP! helps meet some of those returning soldiers’ needs, giving them an opportunity to spend time with others who have had similar experiences. “Our veterans come back from the military, where everything is mission oriented, into the civilian world. They miss having a mission, and they miss the camaraderie of their military brothers,” he explained. “When they come to us, they get a new mission. As soon as they start learning we have them start teaching too, because as you teach someone what you’ve just learned, it reinforces the lesson.”

“We basically show them how to apply their military background and training to something new, while most people are telling them to suppress their military skills,” he continued. “I help them relate those skills to what we are trying to do with the horses and the cattle.”

Rick says he started working on the idea for this program in 2007, and did a pilot project. Initially, he did therapeutic riding work with one soldier suffering from severe PTSD. “When we saw the transformation in this man, and how working with the horses and coming out with us for spring branding and such benefitted him, we knew we wanted to do more.”

Rick also partnered with Pete Comstock, Commander of the New Mexico Military order of the Purple Heart establishing the Warrior Mentor Program. Through this program, returning veterans are paired with combat veterans from the same service and generally the same MOS
( Military Occupational Specialty) , to the benefit of both, he said.

The Cowboy UP! program consists of twelve objective, which include specific tasks and skills taking them from basic horsemanship to working cattle horseback. Graduates receive a purple wild rag, which symbolizes their partnership with the Military Order of the Purple Heart as well as being very practical on cold frosty mornings. Horses for Heroes – Cowboy UP! is the only program of this type nationally that is endorsed by the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“There are various horse therapy programs around the United States but we are the only ones doing what we are doing,” he noted. “It’s a different focus – we do help participants bond with horses but take it to the next level if they want to. It is all up to them, the sky’s the limit.”

Rick says that the program focuses on what is possible, rather than what is probable, and that attitude is evident in the program’s first graduate, Sterling Bucholz, U.S.M.C./Ret. who received his wild rag in October. Bucholz served in Iraq as a Machine Gunner with the 2nd Battalion 1st Marines, and was struck in the head and severely wounded by enemy sniper fire receiving the Purple Heart and a Navy –Marine Commendation Medal. He returned home in 2005, and suffers from severe PTSD in addition to brain trauma. After completing the program, he was offered a position with the San Cristobal Ranch.

“We train to standard, not to time. It is a completely self-paced program, and doesn’t matter how long it takes for a veteran to make it through those twelve objectives,” Rick said. “Sterling rocketed through the program in less than a year. Some others just come out and groom the horses and enjoy cowboy coffee and conversation around the fire, and that’s ok, too.”

Quantifying participation in the program is difficult because it is relaxed and self-paced, but Rick said dozens of veterans have taken part. “We have some who come a few times, and some who get very involved. Right now, we probably have a dozen participants at various stages – from the guy who comes out every day to the guy who comes once a month.”

“We are very proud of all our guys,” he continued. “When we have new veterans coming out for the first time, a number of our current participants are always there because they want to help their brothers.”

Horses for Heroes – Cowboy UP! is staffed and operated by volunteers, most of whom are also veterans as well as cowboys or accomplished horseman. “Several of our staff who help instruct and support this effort were veterans that remember coming home from Vietnam and being greeted by protesters. It was a terrible time to be a service member, and we were often treated very poorly by the public,” he explained. “At the ranch, we do all we can to welcome new veterans and to let them know they are coming home.”

None of this would have been possible without the support of the ranching community, Rick said, and he is blessed and thankful for program partners including Mike Hobbs, Express UU Bar Ranch, Cimarron; Steve Price, Bonanza Creek Ranch, Santa Fe; Henry McKinley, Staple Cross Ranch, Santa Fe; Bob Frost, Caprock Creek Ranch, San Jon; Grant and Connie Jo Mitchell, San Cristobal Ranch, Santa Fe; and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.

New program participants are referred through the New Mexico Military Order of the Purple Heart, different groups and units of the Veterans Administration Hospital , the U.S. Army’s Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) for combat wounded soldiers just coming off of active duty and the New Mexico Workforce Solutions Veterans department. Occasionally, a veteran who has heard about the program through other channels also seeks them out, he noted.

Another important aspect is the program’s close relationship with the Turquoise Trail Wranglers 4-H Club, which Rick and his fiancĂ©e, Nancy DeSantis a primary Cowboy UP! Instructor and co- founder also founded and used as a model for Horses for Heroes – Cowboy UP! “Our two groups, are more like a family – all of my veterans show up to help out with the kids’ events, like the ranch rodeo we put on every October. The veterans want to give back, and to help out, and spending time together is good for the kids and the veterans.”

Future plans include construction of a bunkhouse at the ranch and additional corrals for program horses. Horses for Heroes – Cowboy Up! receives no funding from any government or any other source so they will hold their first benefit dinner December 9th at Vanessie’s Restaurant in Santa Fe. To help support or learn more about the program, visit their website at or call Rick at 505 670 2059.