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Horsemanship for heroes

Special Forces vet has a new mission helping wounded warriors

Sep. 21, 2012 - 01:10PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 21, 2012 - 01:10PM  |  
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Lessons from the ranch at first glance, the Crossed Arrows Ranch outside Santa Fe doesn't look that exceptional, with horses, stables and a barn the usual. But everything from the horses to the staff is in clean, precise military order.

Rick Iannucci founded New Mexico's Horses for Heroes aka Horses for Heroes-NM Inc. Cowboy Up! on the ranch 20 minutes outside Santa Fe "to help our wounded brothers and sisters coming back from war with physical and cognitive injuries," said the 10-year Army Special Forces veteran, who retired from the U.S. Marshals Service as chief of a special missions unit in Colombia. Iannucci's combined military training and upbringing in Pennsylvania horse country inspired him to create the innovative horsemanship, wellness and skill-set restructuring program.

"This was a calling to me," Iannucci said. "I started Horses for Heroes because of my military values and a well-known passage in the Old Testament, Isaiah (6:8): ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? And I said, Here am I. Send me!'" Iannucci's program helps wounded warriors by teaching mindfulness, verbal acuity and ranching skills.

Cowboy Up! is all about "real horsemanship, from the bottom up, beginning with catching, grooming, saddling, then riding and caring for your horse," Iannucci said. The program is funded entirely by donations.

It's not your typical therapeutic riding program. Most of the volunteer staff are former military. Cowboy Up! "meets individual needs and takes a holistic approach to treating our wounded warriors," said retired Air Force Col. Timothy Hale. "Programs like Horses for Heroes gives our wounded warriors something they can put their hands on; they know ‘if I can do this, I can do anything,'" says Hale, now secretary of the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services.

Iannucci uses concepts taught both in higher education and Special Forces training, including renowned Colorado State University professor Temple Grandin's "see one, do one, teach one" principle to help fortify an acquired skill. Veterans spend up to several months at the ranch.

This year, Horses for Heroes partnered with American Competitive Trail Horse Association's Ride to Remember to help bring national recognition to the program.


Knowing not everyone can attend Cowboy Up!, Director Rick Iannucci provided advice for troops transitioning from combat to civilian life.

Work on controlling your emotions. Learn to focus on one specific task, and do not become deterred in the face of adversity. Understanding your emotions reaches beyond psychological understanding it's about being able to remedy a problem using acquired skills.

Think about how you got through a deployment. Use the same skills that got you through a deployment or a difficult training exercise. Always remember the perseverance you were taught. Remember completing the mission regardless of the conditions or perceived difficulty.

Don't lose sight of your military values. Make a mental commitment to adapt, overcome and improvise when you face hardships.

Develop leadership reconnaissance. This is being able to interpret and assess situations such as you might have been required to do downrange.

Practice mindfulness. Be present in the moment. Reach deep into yourself and know that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

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