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Veterans and Horses

To most people, the animals in veteran Tice Ridley’s menagerie look like they’re living a comfortable life of leisure. But the five goats, two alpacas, two rabbits, potbellied pig, cat, guinea pig, dog and five horses (including two miniature horses) play critical roles in helping veterans, along with first responders and their families, heal from the wounds of war.

Ridley, a retired major and decorated Army war veteran who served for 18 years, calls this endeavor the Circle of Veterans and Families, and its mission is “to keep soldiers alive and families together.”

In 2015, after taking medical retirement from the Army the previous year, he co-founded the nonprofit organization with his wife, Samantha Ridley, in the Dade City/Lacoochee area of Florida. Located on his 10-acre Circle V Ranch, the project gives him purpose while providing peers hope — for the Ridleys are keenly aware that “not all wounds are visible,” he told TODAY.

The ranch welcomed its first veteran guests Nov. 2 in a joint effort with James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida, to provide services to veterans. The comprehensive curriculum includes transitional on-site housing in a 4,200-square-foot home, along with other supportive services such as therapy and counseling, food, transportation and individual case management.

The use of proven alternative therapies differentiates the ranch from more traditional treatment facilities. At Circle V, participants can engage in meditation, yoga, hypnosis and smoking cessation. They can also participate in peer group support, equine-assisted psychotherapy and companion dog pairing — canine therapy with man’s best friend.

Local Army veteran Gil D’Amore, whose leg was amputated in 1987, said being on the ranch has helped him put his life back together. “You give somebody a thimbleful of hope, and now they have something to live for,” he told TODAY. “We veterans are expected to solve our problems with medications, but those can create two or three other problems. Being here has helped me see the long-term effects and ramifications of change without negativity — if I just look deep enough inside myself.”

The animals allow veterans to “detach” from everyday worries, he said. “We can focus all our energy on the dogs, for example, that have unconditional love for us.”

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