MEDINA, Ohio — There's an unspoken respect between horses and humans: Both feel empathy, and trust is earned, not given.
“Forever Amber was the first horse that I rescued. The trainer kept telling me, 'there's something wrong with this horse. She's hot blooded. She's going to kill you. You shouldn't be riding her. You should return her and find another horse,'" Michele Bolinger, founder of Forever Amber Acres said. "I had her diagnosed with a brain tumor and that's why she was acting the way that she was. So, that kind of gave me this whole affinity for horses that had special needs."
Michele felt that connection personally. For, she, too, had struggled in her own life.
"So in 2005, my mother had passed away and I was 40 years old and I felt like I was living a life without purpose. I knew I was a great mom and a great worker with my employer, but there was something missing. And, I felt like I was destined to do more ... I get emotional talking about it," Michele said.
Her calling? Rescuing horses from slaughter or places that couldn't care for their special needs. Michele sold her 3,400 square foot home and took a leap of faith, moving into a mobile home on the 11-acre Medina farm called Forever Amber Acres.
"I continued to understand the healing power that horses had," Michele told us. "So I decided that I needed to do something similar, but military veterans are near and dear to my heart."
Forever Amber Acres: A forever places for horses; a healing place for veterans. A beautiful collaboration Michele saw in its beginning days in 2013, when a combat veteran suffering from PTSD had a breakthrough.
"I just remember him being in tears because of the connection he had with the horse that he was working with. His name is Freedom ... actually, Freedom still lives here," Michele said.
"I think that the program they lead veterans through helps them to open up and maybe to realize, 'Oh my gosh, I've been going ... I've been carrying this load for so long and now I can take off my pack. I can let someone else carry it for me.' And that's what these horses do. They come in and they want to carry the load for you," said veteran and volunteer, Peggy Whitcomb.
Volunteers here are called barn buddies. The meaning of the name, runs deep.
"When you're in the military, in the army battle, a battle buddy is the one that's got your side. So that's what our program barn buddies is all about," Michele said.
The horses are bearing their own emotional scars. Some are retired horses rescued from slaughterhouses. Others have anxiety and medical issues. All, will spend their remaining days at Forever Amber Acres: Free to roam. Free, to let go of the past.
"People who haven't cried about traumas. Veterans who haven't acknowledged stuff that has happened -- they will break down in tears and they will hug that horse and they will walk out of that session, stronger, taller, and more confident," said Forever Amber Acres therapist, JannaLe TenHuisen.
"There's an expression when you're with horses that when you look at them, it's like looking at yourself in the mirror because you can't hide your emotions from them," Michele said.
They form unbreakable bonds with trust exercises. One is called "join up," where the horse is free to run around and around in a circular pen. The therapist or trainer stands in the middle of the pen until the horse's walls come down, slowly but surely. When it's ready, the horse walks to the middle to join its human, with an understanding and acceptance of the rough paths all have traveled here.
Forever Amber Acres is a free service; a non-profit relying solely on sponsors and donations. If would like to learn more about Forever Amber Acres, or want to donate, click HERE.