Sara's Story

Sara Poquette joined the military just three days after she turned 18 years old. She looked to serving in the Army Reserves as a strategy for attaining a college degree.

"I didn't have any way to pay for it," says Sara, "so I thought 'one weekend per month, two weeks per year in summer would be a great way to start paying for college.'" 

Looking back, Sara admits that she was a bit naive in her thinking. She was hoping to see the world - "fun places like Germany. It didn't really end up being that way. I did not understand the magnitude of what I was getting into - but I wouldn't change any of it for anything."

When she enlisted it was early in 2001, and Operation Desert Storm seemed like a distant memory. As for many, 9/11 significantly changed the perspective on what miliatry reserve service would truly entail. Sara's first deployment to Iraq was in 2004. After she served a year in the combat zone, Sara explains that as she returned to college life, she didn't really understand what it meant to be a veteran and didn't fit in with the other students. 

I wanted to be back doing something that contributed to the world. I felt that at college, I was surrounded by peers who didn’t know and didn’t care that I was fighting in Iraq - it was just a huge disconnect.
— Sara Poquette

She dealt with this unease by skipping class, drinking, and increasingly isolating herself.

Immediately after Sara graduated from college, she was shipped out for her second deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After being stationed a year at the military detention facility there, Sara completed her term of service and returned to the States to pursue a professional career. Even though she had a job waiting for her, Sara found it was "still very difficult to acclimate to my new surroundings and how things had changed in the year I missed out on." Even more pressing on Sara were the lingering memories of first deployment in Iraq. "I was still thinking about 2004," said Sara.

I really struggled for a really long time - I still struggle, but that was one of the most defining years of my life. I’m thankful for the struggle, no matter how hard it was.
— Sara Poquette

Sara bravely searched for ways to come to terms with her inner battle.

"I have been in talk therapy for many years, moving one baby step at a time," said Sara. But when Sara got married, and life happened, she realized she wasn't as far along as she would have liked and decided to kick it up a notch. 

At a veteran's meeting, Sara met Jeff Hensley, Equest's Hooves for Heroes program counselor and former Navy fighter pilot.

"Just overhearing the discussion about Hooves for Heroes, I immediately took interest and connected. The following day I emailed Jeff to see how I could get involved," Sara said.

For Sara, the effects of working with horses were immediate and profound.

My life changed! I started feeling again - and feeling was not something I was able to do for a good eight or nine years at that point. You can’t put a label on it or call it therapy because being in the program doesn’t feel like therapy. You come out to Equest and you connect with your horse. Then you come home and you start to talk about what’s on your mind, and on your heart - what you’re feeling. It’s just incredible! Working with the horses has moved me mountains compared to the little hills I was jumping with just talk therapy!
— Sara Poquette

When asked why she feels that working with the therapy horses has been so effective for her, Sara explains, "For me, the unique thing is that they don't care about what you've been through. You can visually see that they are mimicking what you are feeling; if you are having a hard time and you really need some love."

She recalls that this was true of her very first encounter with an Equest horse.

He just kind of nudged me a little bit. He bowed his head into my chest, and that was his way of giving me a hug. It was so special to me because he knew what I needed, even if I didn’t say it out loud. To feel that - after a decade without allowing feelings - was very special.
— Sara Poquette

Sara also learned that while the horses can be very tender, the most important lessons can come from more difficult circumstances. According to Sara, her biggest breakthrough came "when I had an 'unscheduled dismount.' It was one of the scariest things in my entire life. Honestly - immediately - it brought me back to a car bomb in Iraq. I felt chaos, not knowing what was going on, doing a once-over to make sure my body was okay. I just laid there and I didn't know what to do."

"Susannah Denney (Hooves for Heroes veterans coordinator) took my hand, and said to me, 'Sara, when you are ready, let's get back on the horse.'" Sara confesses that her insticts screamed for her to run away, leave the property, and continue using isolation to cope with her distress. 

This was the moment that I realized that I had been doing the same thing in other areas of my life for the last 10 years. I didn’t want to continue doing that anymore! I got up, knees shaking, heart pounding, and I got back up on the horse. I knew it was the right thing to do. I felt really supported by Susannah and Jeff, and so I cried a lot - but I needed to. I needed to let myself feel what I was going to feel, all the way back to that day in Iraq.
I learned from that moment that I can do it! It hasn’t been the same since - I think pushing forward was a lesson I needed to learn and it is one that has stayed with me since.
— Sara Poquette

As is the goal of the Hooves for Heroes program, Sara has now stepped into a leadership and advocate role in the veteran's community. 

I really get to fight for something I believe in. I didn’t really realize I had that passion in me until recently. I have realized that my story is important - whether it is just to my family, or to the veterans at Equest, or to my community. I really want to be brave enough to speak out for my battle buddies that were afraid to say something. I want them to look at me, and hear about my experiences, and realize that they can do it too!
— Sara Poquette

Sara's story appeared in Equest's 2012-13 Annual Report

CJ Bankhead