Graduation is a milestone, but not all commencements are for youth.
Military veteran Chris Carl recently graduated from the HorseSensing Grooming Education, Certification and Job Placement program, and already has a new job.
HorseSensing is a residential therapeutic job training program for veterans and people in recovery.
Chris, 36, is now in Wisconsin, continuing his recovery and working on a horse farm, employing his newfound skills and continuing his recovery.
Knollwood Farm, the largest saddlebred farm in Wisconsin, wanted Carl. The business is an academy that teaches people how to ride.
“There are youth groups and adults, and they go to shows,” Chris Carl said of the farm. “The program allows people the opportunity to gain entry into the horse industry. That peaked my curiosity most, the opportunity to get a foot in the door, a path to a future. By the grace of God, I got this opportunity to go there. It is life changing.”
He is a horse groom and takes care of tack, gets equipment on and off the horses, helps trainers and assists youth.
Carl is in recovery and entered the HorseSensing residential program in August 2022, when he left Isaiah House, a treatment center in Willisburg.
“He was approximately 60 days sober at that point,” said Sally Broder, executive director of HorseSensing.
The veteran knew nothing about horses and felt a little intimidated at first by these massive beasts, but he entered the program and began work.
“I didn’t have any knowledge of horses prior to arrival at HorseSensing,” Carl said. “The program taught me, along with other people, everything we need to know about horses, how to care for them, to cross over into the industry.”
Phillip Crittendon, education director of HorseSensing, placed Carl with the barn’s most nervous young horse, 4-year-old Luki.
“Together, he and Luki learned how to relax a bit,” Broder said. “Chris was forced to slow his breathing and reactions in order to make the horse comfortable,” which helped both.
One of the goals of residential recovery program students is to understand the horse and in turn, to find a partner of sorts to learn how to connect with another living being.
“Since our residents work with young horses in training, they get used to handling horses that are unpredictable and learn to be a good leader to these horses,” Broder said.
Carl suffers from PTSD.
Crittendon works with students and the saddlebred trainer.
“In Chris’s case, he helped the trainer, along with Robert, our other resident, as Luki was taken through all the steps to learn how to pull a jog cart, which was no easy feat," Broder said. "He learned how to be an excellent ‘ground man’ and be ready at all times for whatever the trainer might need him to do while he was working a horse.”
Carl excelled in the study of farm management, taught by David Broder, and learned to operate a tractor.
“It’s an amazing program,” Carl said. “It gives you meaning, fulfillment, pleasure and enjoyment. If you’re sober, and you’re looking for an opportunity to earn a pathway for your future and remain in recovery, I recommend HorseSensing.”
Learning to work with horses is only part of the program. The educational component works in tandem with recovery.
“Professional skills and recovery go hand-in-hand with what they do here," Carl said. "It built confidence self-worth and self-esteem working with the horses, and to be steadfast in recovery.”
Carl attended five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each week while living in Shelbyville, got a sponsor and worked on a 12-step course through AA.
“Chris was eager to learn about the horses and this desire helped him overcome his anxiety with them,” Broder said. “We are incredibly proud and happy for Chris, but sad to see him go. The sky is the limit for this young veteran. Our next resident to graduate will be Robert, who graduates mid-January.”
Carl plans to continue his recovery in Wisconsin.
“It’s a foundational framework to build on, as long as I go to meetings, get a sponsor,” he said. “I’ll keep doing that. Otherwise addiction will arise again. That’s the nature of addiction, I think. As long as I stay in the recovery community, I have faith that I will stay on the pathway.”
A new start
Knollwood contacted HorseSensing to hire someone who had gone through the program. The owner had heard about the nonprofit’s work and wanted to hire a veteran graduate. Knollwood waited for Carl to graduate first, which took two months.
He did a FaceTime interview, filled out documents including a background check, and met the Knollwood team on a weekend visit.
Before he started the new job, Carl interned with Harper Stables in Shelbyville, owned by Randy and Danessa Harper.
“Each trainer does things differently and going to Harper stables gave Chris real world experience and the experience of working with hackney ponies too,” Broder said, adding real-world experience to his toolkit.
Carl plans to stay in touch. “They’re family,” he said of the folks at HorseSensing. “They’ll do everything they can to help you. We’ll always be family.”