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Program for veterans gives ranching experience, healing

By Kylene Scott

Rick Iannucci, executive director and Dr. Kris Wilson of the historic Bell Ranch visit at a ranch rodeo. The Bell Ranch is the newest program partners, for Horses for Heroes. (Courtesy photo.)

The battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan have to be a stark difference from ranchlands of New Mexico. For some veterans it’s just the therapy they need.

Horses For Heroes—New Mexico, Inc., Cowboy Up! was started by Rick Iannucci after realizing one day fixing fence that cowboy work had many therapeutic benefits. A former Green Beret and retired U.S. Marshal, he believes a horse-based program could help veterans regroup and develop skills and attitudes needed to re-enter civilian life.

Located south of Santa Fe, N.M., on what Iannucci calls the Crossed Arrows Ranch, his program started in 2007. A couple hundred veterans have already completed the program, and a dozen veterans work through the program at a time. Both men and women can go through the program.

“This is cowboy 101. This is skill-set restructuring in its purest form, to get the guys to take their military skills and realize the value in them, and that they are not worthless,” Iannucci said.

Working with the horses helps reprogram the veterans’ brains and use their military skills to think about ranch work. For instance, when bringing up pairs, instead of telling them to keep the cows and calves together, and not go “hell-bent for leather,” Iannucci describes the process tactically in military “speak.”

“What you have to do is you have to do kind of a leaders recon, and you do the same thing you do in patrol. You don’t leave and ride in front of another cowboy. That’s violating your fields of fire. If you do that when you’re in the military, you’ve just shot somebody up,” Iannucci said. “It’s the same principle; single them out, and using your avenues of approach—look at your key terrain features, using those to kind of ease on down then you come around. It’s kind of like a stealth move.”

Iannucci said anything they can do from the horsemanship to working cattle, instructors try to relate in some way to military training. The program is self-paced but objective based, he said. Often times the veterans go with Iannucci and work on partner ranches.

“If they don’t have their horsemanship solid enough to go out on some of these big places with some of these real outfits, then they’ll work on the ground,” Iannucci said. “They’ve got something to do, just like a regular ranch family.”

Those who are not able to ride and gather the cattle help with other stuff on the ground when they get back to the pens or the area where cattle are worked.

“They’ll be working cattle afoot once we get them into the sorting pens or they’ll be helping us brand, or they’ll be inoculating, ear tagging or whatever,” Iannucci said. “And that’s great experience because then they’re part of the team.”


Being part of the team is pretty important to the participants, and even though they may not be ready to go out and “be a cowboy,” they’re still doing so on the ground.

“They’re part of the group. They’re part of the team that goes out and works with our partners there,” Iannucci said.

Iannucci’s program is endorsed by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and currently has 10 ranches that serve as Program Partners. These ranches provide veterans with the opportunity to continue to develop the ranch skills they learn with Iannucci and his instructors.

“They see what the community is about,” he said. “I set up that Program Partners system because I knew early on that if we didn’t have of the community behind us that this thing wasn’t going to work like I wanted it to work. It would be then just another horse type program, you know. We’re the real deal. We don’t do horse therapy here.”

The way the veterans’ minds work after battle relates to how they have been trained and or scarred.

“Those guys relate to things as warriors. You’ve got to understand these guys were real-life gunfighters. Modern-day gunfighters, and people kind of forget that,” Iannucci said. “Taking all that and using all that to their advantage, we use all those analogies to develop that correlation between ranch skills, horsemanship, working cattle and then go one step beyond that.”

Iannucci also gets something out of meeting the veterans and helping them evolve into productive citizens again. Part of that process is helping them recognize what PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, does to the human soul, not just the body.

“It’s post-traumatic spiritual disorder, I call it. It’s a wound of the soul. It’s an unseen wound, but it’s equally debilitating and devastating, and so as you start to see them transform, you see they start to develop that spirit,” Iannucci said.

Working with the horses, the veterans begin to develop faith again and realize they are now part of something again. They have become a custodian for the animal and will eventually start developing faith in others.

“They start working with the guys again. They start developing that faith, or more importantly, they go from the horse to faith in themselves, and then they develop faith in other people,” Iannucci said. “Once they develop that faith in other people, then they can transform that into faith in God again at whatever level that want to have that spiritual connection.

Once the veteran gets those things all synced back up, that’s where Iannucci starts seeing the biggest strides in them and seeing that all come together. He also gets satisfaction out of seeing the participants’ skills progress to the level that they get “hired on” at a ranch.

“Obviously if we get a guy working on another ranch, that’s always exciting for us—when somebody picks up one of our guys and says, I’d like to have them come out and work with us,” Iannucci said.


Working with other people and getting them horseback started after Iannucci lost his wife to breast cancer and had three kids to raise, and he chose to retire from government service. A family friend asked if he could get a newly returned wounded veteran horseback, and now with new wife and program Co-Director Nancy De Santis, the program evolved from there.

“One thing lead to another, then it took off,” he said.

Iannucci uses Isaiah 6:8 in his mission statement and said the scripture helped him find his retirement path. It says, “Whom shall I send and who will go for me? Here I am Lord, send me.”

“If you look and listen to what you’re supposed to be doing in your life, that’s the first part of it,” Iannucci said. “The second part—being responsive to what the Lord’s gotten in store for you, then you rock with it, and then after that, the next thing is you have to be here to feel the good energy with our guys when they have an a-ha moment.”

There are so many a-ha moments, he said, and that’s the rewarding part—when you’ve got a guy that turns around for the better. The dress changes, the attitude changes, even the swagger changes.

“They’ve got a whole sense of pride and accomplishment that they’ve been able to do something, and so that’s catchy,” Iannucci said. “That to me is the zenith. You know, seeing these guys make that transformation and then seeing them help other people do the same thing.”


Iannucci has spent his own retirement and funds to create and operate the nonprofit, and up until last year, he was writing all the checks out of his own pension.

“Nobody gets paid here. We’re all volunteers, and everything we do is free for these guys,” Iannucci said.

Once a year, the program holds a fundraiser, and whatever is made during that event will be the operational budget. This year, they’ve partnered with the American Gold Star Mothers on the event, which will take place Dec. 13 at the La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe, N.M. Artists have donated works of art, and nearly half of the ticket cost will go back to Iannucci’s program.

“We make it a festive event,” he said. It’s our annual Christmas party and if we have somebody to thank that year we recognize them.”

The governor attends and recognizes the veterans, and Iannucci sees the event as one of thanksgiving. Last year, Program Partners were recognized along with other people who helped the program.

“It’s our chance to thank everybody for what they’ve done and being part of this community and for helping these guys go down the road and adopt the Western lifestyle and will stick with them forever,” Iannucci said.

Tickets for the event can be purchased at

For more information about Horses for Heroes, visit or visit the blog at

Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at

Date: 11/11/2013


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