Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary closed to tourists, but to redesign itself as a veterans-based rehabilitation center

Photo by Marcus Heerdt/Fall River County Herald-Star

Spanish horses are just one of the many types of horses protected at the sanctuary, located south of Hot Springs on Hwy. 71.

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By Marcus Heerdt

HOT SPRINGS – On Thursday, July 9, representatives from the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, along with members of the South Dakota Legislature and other organizations, gathered in Hot Springs to discuss the future of the horse sanctuary and the planned implementation of a new equine-assisted psychotherapy program for members of the military. The meeting was attended by a total of 15 people.

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is widely known for its tours for visitors, Native American petroglyphs, early pioneer history, as well as being the filming location for the movies Crazy Horse (1996) and Hidalgo (2004). However, the non-profit corporation, which cares for about 500 horses on 11,000 acres of land south of Hot Springs, officially closed to tourists in January 2020.

Since the closure, the business has refocused its efforts on its horses and has been working non-stop on a plan to become a place to help veterans and their families overcome trauma, relationship issues, and other emotional barriers.

“After 33 years, it is time for a transformation,” stated Susan Watt, President of the horse sanctuary.

Rob Pliskin is a licensed social worker and equine professional, and has been working with a program called Eagala (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) since the early 2000s. He has been helping the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on this project, and spoke about the positive effects horses can have on people.

Pliskin explained that horses have keen senses, are non-judgmental, and can read subtle expressions of body language and a person’s intent. When returning home, many veterans experience difficulties with trust, relationships, and an overall return to “normal” society. Pliskin stated that through structured arena sessions, horses can help those who have experienced trauma to build trust and move forward in life. There is no horsemanship or riding; participants are face-to-face with the horses during sessions. All that is needed to implement the program is a horse, a licensed mental health professional, and a credentialed equine specialist.

Current District 30 representative Julie Frye-Mueller and representative-elect Trish Ladner were in attendance. Ladner explained that she has seen the benefits of equine-based therapy firsthand. “The possibilities are amazing,” she said.

The horse sanctuary plans to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs on a national and local level. 

“This program will involve the whole community, and this is a case of when you build it, they will come, not if,” said Pliskin.

Funding for this type of project has three major sources: individual fundraising and donorship, grants, and agency contracts. With the horse sanctuary in business for over three decades, some funding streams are already in place, Watt said, but the organization will be seeking additional funding sources to keep the project going.

The facility possibly could open to non-veterans as well, such as youth with mental health issues or people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The meeting also included Dave Gates and Larry Zimmerman of the Veterans Helping Hands Project (Operation VHHP), a 501(c)(3) organization who also wants to help veterans in and around the Hot Springs area. Their goal is to provide veterans with useful on-the-job training in order to become skilled electricians, plumbers, and contractors. The plan is for veterans to work on building affordable housing around the Black Hills.

The organization’s business plan states that “The Veterans Helping Hands Project will build residential ‘tiny home’ units for residential developments to be built by veterans for veterans.” VHHP already has a contract in place with the Hot Springs VA to use their Compensated Work Therapy workforce to build homes. Additionally, they have received permission to build homes on lots near Ellsworth and Hill City, but the current COVID-19 pandemic has slowed their efforts.

For more information on the efforts of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary visit www.wildmustangs.com or www.eagala.org. Veterans Helping Hands Project can be found on Facebook: @operationVHHP.

Fall River County Herald Star

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