COLUMBIA — Veteran Benjamin McCain, who had been deployed to Afghanistan for 13 months, watched as his two daughters climbed onto a pair of horses.
His children were the first to arrive at a Horses4Heroes open house event during Veteran's Day weekend this month at the Trowbridge Arena at MU.
McCain smiled as his girls happily rode around the arena half a dozen times, their horses led by volunteers of the Columbia Equestrian Center northwest of Columbia.
Once the girls' turn was over, they rushed over and tugged him toward the horses, eager for him to ride as well.
"I thought it would be a great time for my children," McCain said. "Everybody loves horses."
Horses4Heroes is a nationwide nonprofit organization that provides inexpensive and accessible horseback riding activities to the families of those who have served in the military.
Schellie Blochberger, whose farm in Russellville is one of three Horses4Heroes locations in Missouri, joined in March.
She and about 20 other volunteers participated in the Veteran's Day event in Trowbridge Arena. There was face painting, a lasso station and an arts and crafts table for kids. A raffle to give prizes away was also available to participants.
The featured event was horseback riding. Five horses, including a Shetland pony, were provided by the Columbia Equestrian Center.
Non-combat veteran Stacey Dennis came to the event, bringing her two young sons. One of them, 3-year-old Connor, had never ridden a horse before.
Terry Combs served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and then was an officer in the Air Force for 25 years. He was also in attendance, along with his grandchildren. Combs said that they love horses.
"I thought it might be fun for my grandkids to be able to see the horses and get to ride them," Combs said.
Blochberger said she heard about the organization through a magazine, and filled out a membership form to join. She said she wanted to give back to those who put their life on the line.
"What they've done, what they've been through, it's just amazing to me," she said.
Horses4Heroes began in 2006 on a ranch in Las Vegas owned by Sidney Knott, who has three daughters — one, Katherine, a student at MU.
From Knott's ranch in Las Vegas, it has spread to approximately 210 facilities in 43 U.S. states and Canada. These facilities have greeted about 5,000 individuals nationwide since the organization’s founding.
Apart from those in the military, Horses4Heroes also serves families of firefighters and police, as well as hospice and special education nurses. Veterans and those currently serving in the military take advantage of the program the most, Knott said.
"It's about them getting reacquainted with their families," she said, "and helping them go through the transition from soldier to civilian."
Knott's family took a step farther by launching Operation Free Ride in May, which allows military families to ride their horses free of charge. The organization also organizes summer camps and riding lessons.
Knott's own family had ties to the military, she said. Her father served in the Army Air Corps in Dayton, Ohio, and her uncle was in the Navy during World War II.
She said that a big part of their operation is in spreading the passion of horses. Her family currently has 12 horses on their farm. They have had horses since 1999.
"We're introducing people to horses," she said. "And it's making their day a little brighter."