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.”
PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH HAY PHOTOGRAPHY
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
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.
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.
Learn more at WarHorsesForVeterans.org
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.
Next, they needed a team of riders. Benson set about selecting seven with a passion for the horse, a next-level tenacity and the willingness to put in the time training. These were novice riders — a mix of veterans and active-duty Green Berets — with most only having been on horseback less than a week at the War Horses farm.
Still, they had what it would take, Benson was confident. He quickly decided on six U.S. Army Special Forces, or Green Berets — Jake Draper, Isaac Smith, Heath Patrick, Christopher Manley, Mark Nutsch and Rick Hodges — and Marine Brandon Wojcik. In the ensuing months, the three horse trainers returned to the War Horses farm to plan out the event with Benson. Then, just weeks later, four of the seven War Horse Challenge competitors landed in Oklahoma for their first official training session at the Dilday Ranch, followed three months later with a week in Texas where all seven competitors trained with Gillespie, Dilday and Dawson at Dawson Performance Horses. “We put them in the pen with fresh cattle almost immediately,” says Dawson, “and it was game on.” As one might expect, the team of seven got after their new mission with determination and a competitiveness that drove them. The week was spent learning the sport, getting comfortable on a horse, taking direction from the trainers and course correcting between laughs and meals together — leaving as better riders and a bonded unit. “That week made me feel like I was back in the team room,” says Patrick of the immediate bond the men formed thanks to this shared experience and a healthy amount of trash talking that added levity and a familiarity reminiscent of their service days. “The thought that these trainers would leave their lives and responsibilities behind to spend this time with us; it almost makes my heart explode,” says Draper with raw emotion in his voice. “War Horses and this experience have changed my life. They’ve made me better. I spent 26 years on active duty, and I struggled with a lot of anger after I got out. I’m happier now, and I’m a much better husband and dad thanks to all of this.”
War Horse for Veterans’ goal is to help veterans and first responders who experienced life-disrupting trauma to recover from their limitations, to repurpose their talents and abilities to a successful life, and to reintegrate into their families, workplaces, and communities. Through exceptional horsemanship, War Horses for Veterans provides combat veterans and first responders the tools for growth personally and professionally.
Seven combat veterans competed in their own class at the 2023 National Stock Horse Association Show.
United States Army, Special Forces
Many Americans have heard Nutsch’s story, perhaps without realizing it. The subject of the blockbuster 2018 film, “12 Strong,” Nutsch was the leader of a small unit of Special Forces soldiers — ODA 595 — who were amongst the first American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He led his team of 12 to unify the three religious factions in the northern mountains of Afghanistan, taking a team comprised of his few American soldiers and Afghani fighters to liberate the north of the country. The unit rode and fought on horseback, beginning with 30 riders and ending with over 3,000 fighters dedicated to regaining freedom on behalf of the Afghan people. They were known as the “Horse Soldiers.” He has since gone on to lead numerous other deployments and co-authored the 2022 book, “Swords of Lightning: Green Beret Horse Soldiers and America’s Response to 9/11” about his Afghanistan military exploits.
United States Army, Special Forces
“Having never ridden but being a natural athlete, I expected to get on the horse, put the work in and succeed. I was in for a rude awakening when I realized the horse didn’t respond to the energy I was putting out,” Manley says of his first session at War Horses. “I needed to center myself before he was ever going to consider doing what I wanted. It was a frustrating and humbling experience.” Brought up in a military family, he became a Green Beret and remains on active duty. “It’s an honor and a privilege to represent War Horses, an organization I wholeheartedly believe in and has done such great things ... . This is an incredible adventure with my War Horse brothers, including (trainers) Russell, Taylor and Chris, who are true patriots.”
United States Army, Special Forces
After more than two decades of active duty around the world, Draper — who is fluent in Indonesian — found War Horses for Veterans and immediately gravitated toward the horse. “Horses and the cowboy lifestyle are a big part of what made America, and I want to be a part of that to keep that part of America alive. The heart of America beats strong in a cowboy. I see that when I get to meet people that support War Horses, and it makes my military service mean a little more,” says Draper. War Horses for Veterans helped him find something he was missing in his life, and through it, he has demonstrated a natural love of horses and competition in his journey.
United States Army, Special Forces
After stumbling across an article on War Horses for Veterans, Patrick attended his first War Horses for Special Operations Forces (SOF) Program. The facility’s farm in Stilwell, Kansas, is not far from where he was raised in a ranching family before embarking on over a decade of service as a Green Beret officer. He found healing and happiness on the back of a horse and has since purchased his own mount — a Mustang named Quanah, a Native American name meaning fragrant and sweet-smelling. A current National Guardsman after years on active duty, Patrick has rediscovered a team bond through The War Horse Challenge, connecting instantly with his fellow competitors, all centered on the horse.
United States Army, Special Forces
Drawn to the War Horses for SOF Elite Program by Jake Draper (his best friend and fellow War Horse Challenge competitor), Isaac Smith discovered an unrealized love for horses and a drive to compete on horseback. “I don’t like being bad at things, so I was frustrated until I could find my seat,” he says remembering his first days at the War Horses farm. “Jumping out of a plane or being in a firefight — those things are my comfort zone. This is completely out of my comfort zone, and I’m competitive.” Still on active duty and with numerous deployments behind him, this fluent Mandarin speaker has taken hold of the challenge and embraced the flood of positive change resulting from the experience.
United States Marine Corps
Wojcik’s journey with horses started later in life but with a dedication and determination that never wavered. The Marine has always carried a sense of pride and commitment, and it is these qualities that have propelled him. His unwavering spirit and love for horses have led him to eagerly embrace The War Horse Challenge. What began as a simple invitation became a life-altering experience, reigniting a passion for riding and instilling a newfound purpose within. He plans to raise awareness and funds for War Horses for Veterans, an organization close to his heart, by shining a light on their transformational work.
United States Army, Special Forces
After years of active duty, Rick found solace and a renewed sense of purpose on horseback, recognizing its profound impact on mental health. From his days as a Division 1 relief pitcher at Virginia Tech to his time as a dedicated Green Beret, Hodges has sought avenues to test his mettle. After leaving active duty, he felt a void and a yearning for competition. A friend recommended War Horses for SOF, and everything changed. Riding and competing in The War Horse Challenge filled a void that he has long harbored, restoring his sense of purpose and passion. After recently earning an MBA and becoming a first-time father, the Colorado resident has formed a friendship with cow horse trainer Matt Koch and will continue to ride.
As the time for the big show approached, the men would communicate often throughout their day via a shared text thread. Excitement and anticipation were high. The event was out there for the world to see, garnering attention from the media and the hundreds of competitors and spectators that also would soon arrive for the show. On August 19th, a trailer loaded down with horses left the gates of the War Horses farm pointed west. Four days later, the seven riders, with their wives and families, landed in Las Vegas greeted by the signature sounds of slot machines dinging, music playing and a bustling casino floor. As they summited the escalators onto the concourse of the South Point Equestrian Center, the main stage came into view — the sprawling arena capped off from above by the massive four-sided jumbo screen and surrounded by the signature red seats that just days from then would hold a roaring crowd with all eyes pointed in their direction. They descended below the arena concourse to visit their mounts, finding row after row of over 1,200 stalls brimming with horses and riders ready to compete. Welcomed by the War Horses team and their three trainers, and after congregating with each other and their horses, it started to sink in: It was go time. For the next three days, the men were up before dawn to feed and water their mounts, exercising their horses mid-day and patiently waiting until the show wrapped up at 10 o’clock each night for their turn to train. Colorado trainer Matt Koch joined Dawson, Gillespie and Dilday to work the riders through their boxing strategy and fence runs.
Each rider, with their trainer coaching in real time from behind, would carefully keep their cow in a confined area at the end of the arena in the boxing, then guide the cow toward the fence and ignite into an all-out gallop as they stayed just behind the cow’s left hip until finally cutting them off for a sharp stop three quarters of the way down the arena. They then worked them back against the fence in the direction they came for another fast stop, before guiding them around in a circle using the horse’s body; first in one direction, then the other. While it may sound simple enough, the sport of reined cow horse challenges a rider on every level. It’s a mix of speed, agility, gentleness and strength all wrapped into one package that, when done right, is beautiful but can spell disaster when done wrong. “Ten months in, and this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s been five weeks since these guys last trained, and nobody got bucked off. Nobody fell off. I was impressed,” says Gillespie light-heartedly after their training session on night one. “I haven’t felt any nerves from the guys yet. But we'll see when they actually get in there, and people are cheering. The rock music’s loud, and the lights are on. I don’t care how much ice water you’ve got running through your veins, you get nervous.” The team gathered in the main arena to take in the setting one last time before it would spring to life for the next day’s main event. The quiet of the moment was in stark contrast to what the riders would see, hear and feel the next day. “The big show is tomorrow, and I’ve visualized it like a thousand times in my mind,” says Draper from atop his horse, staring at the seemingly-endless rows of empty seats. “I was thinking about it last night, really thinking about this whole experience and how much it’s changed me. I just want to see my brothers do great out there. Win or lose, I’ve already won. I’m going to be in the moment and enjoy every bit of that ride.” For Benson, this moment spelled the fruition of a dream that had started years earlier. Tonight, that dream was looking him square in the face. “My hope for these guys tomorrow is that they embrace this grandiose experience; that they really take it all in. I hope they see all the people here in the stands to support them, and when they ride into that arena, it all fades away and it’s just them, their horse and that cow.”
Jake Draper, a retired Green Beret, tacks up his mount.
U.S. Marine, Brandon Wojcik, rides into the arena.
“Ask these men, and they’ll tell you — in the short time they’ve swung a leg over a cow horse, gone down the fence and walked amongst the riders in this world — they’ve found a passion for this sport and a deep appreciation for every one of you showing your support in the stands at this very moment. Cowboys and soldiers — they’ve always been a matched pair. We tip our hat to ‘the seven’ as they head down the fence. God bless them, and God bless America. Let’s ride!”
— Brad Bowie, NSHA Announcer
The next day was a crescendo of nerves, emotion and anticipation. This was it. “There’s no quit. There’s no fear. These guys are ready to get after it,” says Gillespie describing the tone of the seven. Every action and emotion were captured by the Platinum Performance® video and still photography crew to later tell the story of The War Horse Challenge as it unfolded. As the start time of the challenge neared, boots were slipped on, spurs were fastened and hats were pulled down tightly. Horses were tacked and quiet moments could be seen between horse and rider amidst the steady hum of activity in the barn aisle. “I thought I was going to be totally fine. Nobody’s shooting at me. I’m not jumping out of a plane. This is kind of low risk. Then, the butterflies showed up,” admits Smith of his pre-game nerves.
The seven made their way on horseback through the labyrinth just below the casino floor, with twists and turns eventually leading to the alleyway of the main arena. Along the way came cheers and words of encouragement as the men felt a massive wave of support standing behind them. Quiet fell onto the arena as the crowd rose for the National Anthem. A chill touched the audience as the hallowed song seemed to underscore the drama of the moment. Announcer Brad Bowie’s booming baritone then filled the air of the arena: “Ladies and gentlemen, as these seven men ride — one by one — into the arena this evening, join us in welcoming our nation’s heroes into the NSHA family. Ask these men, and they’ll tell you — in the short time they’ve swung a leg over a cow horse, gone down the fence and walked amongst the riders in this world — they’ve found a passion for this sport and a deep appreciation for every one of you showing your support in the stands at this very moment. Cowboys and soldiers — they’ve always been a matched pair. We tip our hat to ‘the seven’ as they head down the fence. God bless them, and God bless America. Let’s ride!”
One by one, each soldier’s story played on the jumbo screen, introducing him to the crowd as he trotted in, accompanied by one of the four trainers at his flank who was there to offer real time support and coaching. “You can't compare this to anything else. The amount of adrenaline, and just hearing the crowd cheering and your family being there: it’s amazing,” says Wojcik. The second each competitor’s cow was let into the arena, the crowd rose to their feet, loudly cheering for every well-executed move and precise turn. “This is the embodiment of American patriotism,” Gillespie says, taking it all in. “It’s a whole different deal, a whole different emotion for Chris, Russell and I, watching them go into the ring. We can’t save them, and we can’t stop and reset. They’re on their own, and we’re pulling for every one of them.” As each man steered his cow down the fence and found a new gear, the room became electric, and the sound was deafening; it was like every member of the crowd was riding right there with them, urging them on. “As the gates opened for Nutsch to ride in, Dawson could be heard bolstering him in his typical tongue-incheek fashion, “You got this,” he says. “Don’t get beat and don’t overrun your cow.”
Each successive run seemed to fly by, with time evaporating and the seventh rider finishing in grand fashion before a roaring crowd. “My eyes were shut, and I held my breath the whole time. Then, it was over. That’s what I remember,” says Draper exiting the arena with a beaming smile, almost in disbelief. “I’ve done a lot of amazing things in my career. This is at the top of the list. It might be the top.” Back in the arena alleyway, there were exuberant high-fives shared between riders and trainers, proud embraces and a surge of emotion. They’d done it. “We all hit another gear here in Vegas,” Nutsch says proudly of the way his brothers gave it their all. They’d accomplished the mission: a test of their own fortitude, perseverance and willingness to dive into the unknown. Along the way, these soldiers learned deep lessons about themselves and their comrades. “It was an intensity that I haven’t felt outside of what I do for a living. It was amazing. I’m hooked. I can’t wait to do this again,” says an exuberant Smith. They’d all grown as people, found a renewed sense of passion and purpose and they’d come out happier and as a tightly-connected team of brothers in arms with one more thing in common: the horse.
Mark Nutsch — the real-life commander of the “Horse Soldiers,” the subject of the 2018 movie “12 Strong” and one of the authors of the 2022 book “Swords of Lightning: Green Beret Horse Soldiers and America’s Response to 9/11” — was crowned champion of The War Horse Challenge. Christopher Manley — an active-duty Green Beret — was named reserve champion. “It felt good to win, but if I had lost to Chris or any of the other guys today, I was happy with the run I made and to not get tossed out there,” Nutsch says smiling. “Chris Manley was the sleeper. Every one of these guys had the potential to win, but Chris just refused to quit. Any time a new challenge was presented, he handled it; you could watch him working through it. That’s what I love about these guys; failure isn’t an option.” Nutsch and Manley received gleaming belt buckles commemorating their wins, and while every one of the seven had longed to come out victorious, in many ways, they had. They looked on proudly as their “brothers” accepted their buckles with a wave of their hats to the crowd.
NRCHA Million Dollar Rider
Platinum Performance® Client since 2012
NRCHA Eastern Derby Intermediate, Limited & Novice Horse Open Champion
Platinum Performance® Client since 2018
3-Time NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman
Platinum Performance® Client since 2006
“The heart of America beats strong in a cowboy. This was like coming home.”
— Jake Draper, United States Army Special Forces
Former Green Beret officer, Heath Patrick, competes in the inaugural War Horse Challenge.
Patrick shares a laugh with fellow competitor and active duty Green Beret, Christopher Manley.
On the surface, The War Horse Challenge took seven men, trained them and steered them toward a competition that would test even the very best riders. “It’s just unbelievable to me how ... humans and horses — two greatly different creatures that have this connection that can’t really be explained,” reflects Patrick. “These horses have a way of bringing you back to the present; they bring everything into view.” At its core, this experience changed seven heroes for the better, impacting their families and bonding them as a unit. It also provided their trio of trainers — Chris Dawson, Russell Dilday and Taylor Gillespie — the opportunity to not only give back to soldiers they deeply respect but also to ride away from it all changed men themselves. “Now that the event is over, I’m thinking about what’s next,” Nutsch says, clearly charged from not just his win but the entirety of it all. “This has been a challenge like no other. This wasn’t a ‘show up and pet a pony’ type of thing; it challenged us on every level mentally and physically. It made us up our game, and we all have a renewed mission, purpose and focus.” As the weekend wore down, trailers were hitched and loaded and hundreds of horses, trainers and riders pulled out of the South Point headed for home, each leaving uplifted by The War Horse Challenge and the opportunity to stand behind a small group of our nation’s finest who briefly stepped inside the world of the cow horse. “The heart of America beats strong in a cowboy,” said Draper, walking away from the arena, eyes welling but with a broad smile. “This was like coming home.”
Mark Nutsch, The War Horse Challenge Champion
Chris Manley, Reserve Champion
Platinum Performance® would like to congratulate the 2023 War Horse Challenge Champion Mark Nutsch who topped the leaderboard with a score of 224 and Reserve Champion Christopher Manley who piloted his mount to an impressive 221.5!
At right, War Horse Challenge Trainers Taylor Gillespie, Chris Dawson and Russell Dilday receive a gift of appreciation from “the seven” and WHFV organization.