The War Horse Challenge

By , Platinum Performance®

A Behind-The-Scenes Look at This Inaugural Event That Put Combat Veterans into the Cow Horse World, Showcasing Their Skills at the National Stock Horse Association Show in Las Vegas

View War Horse Challenge Video

The cost of freedom. The totality of it is almost too vast to fully comprehend. The red, white and blue has been a shining beacon of liberty, strength and justice for nearly 250 years, with its men and women in uniform dispatched both publicly and quietly around the globe to ensure the continuance of peace, steady the tides of turmoil, compassionately aid those in need and unwaveringly defend the voiceless. It’s those individuals who are left to grapple with the mental weight of what they’ve experienced long after the battle is over.

Patrick Benson, a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the United States Army, has seen combat during multiple deployments and faced the ensuing demons. It was the horse that stood beside him, healed him and awakened his spirit after the darkness. That journey spurred him to create War Horses for Veterans, which has grown since 2014 to serve veterans, first responders and active-duty special forces soldiers at its idyllic farm in Stilwell, Kansas. There, the program’s herd of carefully bred and expertly-trained performance horses takes center stage, acting as catalysts for change for the riders atop them.

Benson, who serves as organization director, is the first to credit the horses and his team, but really, it’s his big thinking and drive that have transformed War Horses for Veterans into the top-tier program that it is. “These are soldiers,” says Benson. “They’re wired differently, and they’ll take anything we throw at them and tackle it. Put them on a horse, and they laser focus. They take direction and immediately apply it, adapt on the fly and do it all with no fear. Most of the service members coming through the program have very little to no riding experience, and aside from the mental work we do using the horses, we have them riding with incredible progress in just a few days.”


Jake Draper, a retired member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, trains with Chris Dawson in Texas.

Isaac Smith, an active member of the United States Special Forces competes in The War Horse Challenge alongside six of his fellow veterans.

“These guys thrive in this kind of environment. Give them a big goal, add challenge and speed, and you’re speaking their language.”
— Patrick Bensen, War Horses for Veterans Co-Founder

The Concept for The Challenge Emerges

After observing this accelerated learning pattern over the years, Benson had a simple idea of hand-selecting a small group of mostly special forces riders who had been through the War Horses program and inviting them to pair with top trainers to compete in their own class at a major horse show. He dubbed it The War Horse Challenge and zeroed in on the reined cow horse world almost immediately due to the high-speed, high-adrenaline nature of the fence work and because of the familial atmosphere the trainers and competitors share in that realm. “These guys thrive in this kind of environment. Give them a big goal, add challenge and speed, and you’re speaking their language,” says Benson of the special forces soldiers.

Fueling his interest in the cow horse was also a newfound friendship with the husband-and-wife duo behind Dawson Performance Horses of Perrin, Texas — Million Dollar Riders, Chris and Sarah Dawson. Chris introduced Benson to Taylor Gillespie, a fellow cow horse trainer. Gillespie wasn’t chosen simply because of his prowess on horseback but because he’s a veteran himself who served as an Army Captain, commanding an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. Things built further, as Gillespie called good friend Tanna Dilday of Dilday Ranch, whose husband, Russell, is a three-time National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) World’s Greatest Horseman. Gillespie had committed to visiting the War Horses farm in November of 2022 to coach a group of special forces participants. Since Dawson had a prior commitment, it was Gillespie and Dilday who pointed their rig toward Kansas. Upon their first taste of the War Horses program, they were hooked. They dove in with the special forces riders, hearing their stories, sitting in on their group discussions and quickly learning that, at their core, they were more similar than different. “I’ve worn both hats here,” says Gillespie of his experience. “I’m there in Kansas with my fellow veterans — who are some of my heroes — and I’m sitting back on my horse just thinking, ‘If there are any two groups of people in the world that can be together for 10 minutes and just click like old friends, it’s cowboys and soldiers.”

Gillespie and Dilday were transformed by the experience. For the former especially, it took him back and cracked open the wall he’d built up around memories of his time in service. “Being around these guys and basically going through the program beside them showed me I had some stuff to stare down. It was life-changing for me,” recalls Gillespie. Dilday agrees, “I found my people at War Horses.” It was on the drive home to Oklahoma that the experience sunk in. Just being there to support these soldiers, teach them a new sport and foster a new passion for them all while making priceless memories together, that was a contribution worth giving. “We called my wife about 20 minutes into the drive,” remembers Dilday. “We told her about Patrick’s idea for The War Horse Challenge and getting a hand-picked group of these guys in the show pen to compete. She said, ‘Done. We’ll do it at our show,’” referencing the 2023 National Stock Horse Association (NSHA) Show scheduled to happen just nine months later. The two men called Benson to tell him they were in, and the challenge was on. Next, they phoned Chris Dawson, who signed on immediately to give his time as the third trainer.

This Purposeful Program

The War Horses for Veterans (WHFV) program is run by a handful of horseman veterans supported by a small team, including an active-duty psychologist, chefs to focus on quality food and nutrition, leading performance physicians offering advanced imaging and body insights and a “family” of close supporters bolstered by a broader group of committed donors. The program is thriving, but it’s purposefully kept intimate and focused to maximize impact.

Co-Founder Patrick Benson has always said he’ll never limit a veteran or first responder with less-than-exceptional horses. That’s the primary reason why WHFV has acquired, bred and trained top-notch cow horses, rope horses and dressage mounts. Donors like Wayne and Michelle Hanson of Hanson Quarter Horses in Creston, Iowa, and War Horses co-founders Andy and Patricia Brown, have seen to it that the program has the very best performance horseflesh available. The farm has options to suit every veteran’s need, including highlevel Quarter Horses, Warmbloods and Morgans.

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Rick Hodges, a retired Green Beret, finds solace on horseback.

Mark Nutsch, a retired captain of the U.S. Army Special Forces, gets feedback from trainer Russell Dilday.