CH (CPT) Michoel Harari on the benefits of equine therapy for soldiers
When CH (CPT) Michael Harari joined the Army in 2017, he never imagined that horses would become part of his military service. He had worked with horses for many years leading up to that point, helping teens learn to ride at the Jewish Boy Scout summer program he founded and teaching his own children to ride and care for horses. But with the support of a two star general and the aid of several prestigious equine organizations, CH Harari has found himself working with horses once again—this time to benefit soldiers.
This new equine adventure started three years ago when CH Harari purchased a quarter horse named Rebel from a woman looking to downsize. The Harari children immediately experienced the positive effects of caring for a horse. But for CH Harari’s wife, Mishi, those effects were not immediate. “In the beginning I was terrified to go near Rebel,” she says. “But when I started taking care of him, I realized that he’s really very gentle.” Mishi describes Rebel as huge but sweet, and extremely intuitive. “The internal transformation I had was amazing. When my husband was away for training, I found that I had a desire to go see Rebel on a particularly difficult day, just to be with him and get emotional support. It is funny because I’m not an animal person by nature. But that’s the effect horses have.”
With his gentle nature, Rebel offers sensory support as well as a calm, soothing presence. Whenever the family visits, Rebel kicks and bucks his head at the sight of their car. He greets them with a powerful snort, and then lowers his head to each child’s level when they move to pet or brush his chestnut brown fur. Four-year-old Avraham Harari even rides Rebel bareback, turning and twisting to match his movements to the horse.
Seeing the incredible support that Rebel provides his family, CH Harari started thinking about how much his soldiers would benefit from horses—whether those suffering from trauma and dealing with anger, guilt, anxiety, sleeplessness, or simply a hard day. He felt that the calming, intuitive presence of a horse could alleviate their stresses and even improve their overall health.
After inviting soldiers to hang out with Rebel and other horses, CH Harari studied the way soldiers interacted with the horses and how the horses responded. Seeing connections form, CH Harari was compelled to learn more about how horses help people heal and elicit other powerful emotions. In one instance, he observed how a horse walked away from a soldier who was speaking in a disingenuous way. When the instructor called her out on this, the soldier switched to a sincere tone and shockingly, the horse came back to her. “Horses are able to pick up on who we are,” Mishi Harari explains. “If we’re acting fake, they know it. If we’re acting honest and open and real, they know it as well.”
After purchasing Rebel, CH Harari connected with Rick Iannucci of Horses for Heroes in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Horses for Heroes is a nonprofit that works with post-9/11 veterans who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, stress, sustained injuries, and combat trauma. At this program, veterans learn to recuperate and reintegrate, using their senses with the help of Rick’s horses. Iannucci and CH Harari began a correspondence that lasted over several years until they finally met in person at Rick’s ranch this past year.
“Getting to know Rick was a critical part of my initiative,” CH Harari explains. “When I brought up the idea of bringing active duty soldiers to the ranch to help them develop skills to deal with their stress and trauma, Rick quickly got on board.”
CH Harari felt that equine therapy would be a perfect fit for the Victory Wellness program at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he is stationed with the Iron Rangers 1-16 Infantry. Major General Douglas Sims, commanding general of the 1st ID, had created the Victory Wellness program as a monthly event to promote soldiers’ wellbeing, and engage in competitive games, workshops, cookouts, and more. The instructions are simple: to have fun. CH Harari added horses to the mix, where they became an immediate hit. With the support of his command team, CH Harari took a small group of soldiers to Rick’s ranch in New Mexico for a weekend of down-home cowboy wellness. “This isn’t ‘come ride a horse and feel good for a day,’” Iannucci explains. “This is a program where you rebuild the narrative of who you are now and reconnect through the horse. Participants take an active role in the process, which takes a lot of courage.”
When they returned home to Fort Riley, CH Harari started pairing soldiers in his battalion with horses at a local ranch. Seeing the tremendous positive effect the horses had on soldiers, CH Harari’s command team then sent him to the Air Force Academy’s Remount program. The Remount Foundation, a nonprofit run by volunteers and fueled by donations, focuses on experiential learning, turning equine behaviors into metaphors for life that help soldiers reintegrate to their communities. By studying the horses’ behavior and how they deal with stress, soldiers learn to mimic those behaviors for incredible healing results. The OK Corral Series was brought aboard to run the clinic, and CH Harari was trained and certified in equine assisted learning.
Since his trip to the Air Force Academy, CH Harari continues to use equine therapy within his battalion. With the support of Major General Sims and others, he is currently working on expanding the program to the division level. He intends to launch a satellite of the Remount program at Fort Riley soon.
If you ask CH Harari about his work with horses and the way they provide direction through life’s challenges, he’ll laugh as he says, “I am not a professional equine therapist, but my horse is!”
Originally published in the Tishrei 2022 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.