A retired Army Master Sergeant is now working at StableStrides. Our clients see him every day in the barn, helping in all three of our programs: physical, occupational & speech therapy (POST), adaptive riding, and mental health therapy. This retired Army Master Sergeant is not an instructor or a therapist. His name is Link, and he is one of the newest members of our horse herd.

Link’s journey to StableStrides took a very different path from many of our other horses. Link is a Mustang who started life in the wild. He then went through the Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program at the prison in Canon City. This program teaches carefully selected and supervised inmates to gentle, halter, and saddle-train horses. Link was identified early as a potential therapy horse, so the inmate program kept him for nine months, much longer than their other horses, while they worked with Link on the skills he would need to be a therapy horse. For example, they obtained a wheelchair and spent time ensuring he was comfortable around this medical equipment.

As he wrapped up his training at the prison, he caught the eye of the Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard soldiers who were looking for new horses for their program. Link joined the Army only a few days before he was to be evaluated by the StableStrides staff to become a therapy horse.

Link spent the next six years as part of the Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard, eventually earning the rank of Master Sergeant. This unit carries the United States and Army Flags to approximately 200 community events and military ceremonies a year. Link’s previous owner referred to this time in the Army as boot camp for Link as he learned so much about being around people, loud noises, and crowds while participating in events around the region, including parades and military ceremonies.

Due to the stresses of the job, the Army prefers to retire horses after four years of service, but Link remained with them for six years because, as his former owner says, he was the horse that the soldiers wanted to work with. In 2022, Link enjoyed a full retirement ceremony, similar to the ceremonies held for human Army officers. We’re told the soldiers were sad to see him go the day the StableStrides trailer showed up.

With the memory of that retirement ceremony still fresh in his mind, Link was already on to the next page of his amazing life story at StableStrides. Just as he had to learn the basics of being a saddle horse at the prison and then how to be a color guard horse in the Army, he was now enrolled in the trial period to become a therapy horse. He went through mounting and dismounting training which involves all the possible ways a rider may need to get on and off his back. He was introduced to side walkers, and he really enjoyed the desensitizing training with all of the toys used for therapy. He wasn’t scared of anything – he put his head inside the basketball hoop, pushed balls around with his nose, and taste-tested most of the toys

His foundational training at the prison and years of service in the Army prepared him for his new job, where he easily passed the Equine Movement Performance Instrument (EMPI), allowing him to become a permanent member of the StableStrides herd. This standardized test evaluates a horse’s conformation, natural movement without a rider, movement with a rider, athleticism, flexibility, balance, tolerance to mounts and dismounts, and basic vaulting moves. Now that he has graduated from the trial period, he works with clients in all three programs.

“Link is fun to ride and definitely has some spunk to him!” said a 16-year-old adaptive riding client who has been in the program for two years and is legally blind. With Link, she is working on steering independently through patterns as well as the sitting trot. “He lets me tell him very easily which way to turn and has a smooth trot! I really like to ride him.”

Link probably has the biggest personality of all of the horses at StableStrides. The staff quickly learned he is an escape artist, so they triple lock his stall, run, and paddock. Based on their experience with Link, the soldiers in the Mounted Color Guard at Fort Carson let the StableStrides staff know that if he gets out, he will also let out some of his friends to accompany him.

This story from one of our therapists sums up the value that Link, and our other horses, bring to our programs.

“Link recently joined our teen girl’s social skills group. His first day with the group was profound. The group of young ladies between the ages of 14 and 17 are typically very shy. I asked the group to free lunge Link, which means to move him around the arena without a halter or rope attached. I expected the girls to be quiet, but instead, I heard a few voices say, “I’ll go.” One at a time, the participants tried their hand at moving Link around the arena. He was quick and bold, requiring them to be focused, precise, and well-timed in their cues. Each participant spoke about how challenging, yet invigorating Link was to work with. They were confident and present in the moment, not tied up with fear, worry, or second-guessing themselves or their abilities.

We focused on the obstacle course the second week that Link was in the group. The goal was to assign meaning to each obstacle they encountered, such as low motivation, social anxiety, or suicidal ideation. Link stepped up to one participant after the other, following right behind each one as they went through the course – no halter, no lead rope, just willingly following. In the end, what stood out to the participants was that Link was willing to go on the journey with them, through all those hardships, without them asking. They tested his loyalty, jogging and hearing him trot at their pace behind them, even sprinting across the diagonal, feeling him canter alongside.

Watching the girls come out of their shells like that, find common ground with their peers, try new things, unsure if they could do it, uncertain if he would connect with them – each one just as surprised as the last that they could succeed at something they’ve never tried before.”

Link made that possible.