Wild Horse Haven Rescue: A Man And His Wild Horses Changes The Lives Of Those With PTSD

Story by Rebecca West,   Photos by Duane Whitmer
Many people don’t realize the extent to which horses and other animals end up needing refuge, just like house pets. These four-legged creatures suffer similar fates as the countless dogs and cats that find themselves cast aside but with far less fanfare concerning their plight. If you’re not familiar with Wild Horse Haven Rescue, it’s an amazing 501c3 non-profit organization in Safford that utilizes horses and other fuzzy friends for the implementation and continuation of programs for kids, veterans, and other survivors of PTSD and related anxiety/stress disorders.

The founder and president of Wild Horse Haven Rescue, Afton “Duane” Whitmer, is a former Deputy Sheriff, world adventurer, and mustang trainer who turned his ranch into a haven and began rescuing mustangs and other horses five years ago. Since that time, over 40 equines and other animals have gone there to live, including donkeys, pigs, goats, and a llama named Kuzco. WHHR recognizes horses as sentient beings with compassionate souls and deep feelings. And as such, they are especially attuned to the emotional needs of humans and others requiring emotional support.

The horses are utilized in programs to support children, veterans, and others suffering from PTSD, anxiety/stress, or other mental health issues. And they’re not the only ones suffering. Horses and other animals often experience PTSD, just as humans do, and these programs are specifically designed to provide support for them through structured interactions. The end result is that it’s good therapy for everyone involved.

With regards to kids, the rescue provides youth programs, such as its Wild Horse Camp, which is committed to educating children in the quest to respect animals (and all life), and to actively support responsible care and understanding of animals and nature. Resources for veterans include Wild Horses for Heroes, where vets suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues have a safe haven to escape to and work towards reclaiming their lives.

The human/animal work they’re performing is to be lauded, but also of note are their mustang rescue efforts. Estimates suggest there are about 100,000 wild horses and burros on public lands. The federal government has been fighting to control the number of wild horses roaming free and guestimates that the land can only sustain about 27,000. That’s due in large part to the fear that their grazing and movements will destroy delicate native species. Much of the criticism comes from ranchers who claim the animals’ movements and behavior threaten their livelihoods.

The solution so far has been annual roundups, but the Bureau of Land Management can’t keep up with the numbers, and it’s not within their budget to do so. The result has been that the public then “adopts” or buys the animals, removing them from their habitats and ending their free-roaming ways. But, sadly, many of them end up being slaughtered. There is no quick or easy fix to the growing problem, but as long as Duane is around, he’ll try and save as many of them as he and the other members of the rescue can.

Wild horses are still found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada, which is home to more than half of the wild horse populations in North America. Utah is also where one of the haven’s mustangs hales from. That horse is Warrior, and it’s said that to this day, he has still never been touched by human hands — except for when he was originally captured. He was fortunate to end up at Wild Horse Haven to live and be free with a small band of mustangs that roam the ranch through the trees and surrounding hillsides.

The most notable mustang at the haven, however, is Sidewinder, who began his life as part of a wild herd at The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, which launched in 1988 as an eleven-thousand-acre refuge for the animals. Sidewinder was eventually singled out as having the unique ability to calm younger and/or anxious horses and make them feel safe and secure. Duane was gifted the horse at a time in his life when all he wanted was “to live the rest of my life in peace” after serving tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

After his own personal experiences and learning about the sad state of wild mustangs and their frequent fates, he felt that the animals were sending him a message he couldn’t ignore. “I could hear horses talking to me,” he said during a previous interview. The feeling was so intense it would wake him in the dead of night “with the sound of horses screams of anguish, pain, and loneliness.” Understandably shaken, the disturbing episodes were ultimately what propelled Duane to transform the family ranch into the haven it is today, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For more information about the haven, its special residents, and the incredible work they perform there, visit wildhorsehaven.com.



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