Fall City center lets horses do the therapy for families riven by deployments | Photo gallery

Horses make a healing connection when military couples and families reconnect at the Warrior Family Retreat. The equine therapy program returns to the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center in Fall City this weekend. - Photo by Karen Wegehenkel
Horses make a healing connection when military couples and families reconnect at the Warrior Family Retreat. The equine therapy program returns to the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center in Fall City this weekend.
— image credit: Photo by Karen Wegehenkel

Horses usually look to people to lead the way. But some well-trained animals in Fall City are the ones leading Washington’s military families toward a better life.

For five summers, James Hutchins, owner of Fall City-based Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center, has hosted the Warrior Family Retreat.

The retreat, which returns this Friday, Aug. 30, deals with the challenges experienced by a soldier returning from a long deployment and the realities of war.

Hutchins, a self-described “horse whisperer,” started the retreat solely for soldiers five years ago. But he quickly realized that the entire family needed to be a part of it.

The family unit

Hutchins joins volunteers from the Valley’s Renton-Pickering American Legion Post and a number of equine assistance therapists—people who use horses to heal—to welcome a dozen families of soldiers, spouses and children for the weekend.

Most of the participants aren’t young men and women—they’re adults, often reservists, with family lives—and family impacts.

Through the retreat, volunteers have met families shaped and changed by a life in the service. One participating family had seven adopted children. The mother kept things going as the father went on three deployments.

Last year, volunteer Pam Collingwood watched as a military father slowly bonded with his new baby, born after his deployment and practically a stranger.

Fussy and bawling at first, the baby slowly connected with dad.

“Watching the two of them bond over that weekend was amazing,” said Collingwood, who is president of the Snoqualmie Valley Legion Auxiliary

“This year, we have a family coming who can’t come with their dad,” who’s going overseas once again, Hutchins said. “They’re going through some real struggles now.

“Those kinds of stories really tug at your heart, and help you understand what the real toll is, not just on soldiers but on the family,” said Hutchins.

For Hutchins, the big lesson is to “understand and appreciate what these families go through.”

The retreat lets “the families know that we realize it’s not just the soldier who goes to war,” says Collingwood.

For families, the retreat is free of charge. Volunteers with Legion Post serve all the meals, while equine-assistance therapists and child care providers give their care. It’s all “to say thank you to these families who are sacrificing so much for us,” said Hutchins.

Partners for life

Now in its 15th year, the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center has been in Fall City for seven years.

“We don’t break horses—we start horses,” explains Hutchins, who is also chairman of the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center’s Family Fund board.

Hutchins describes the center’s approach as “a way of learning to train and be with horses that is based on cooperation and partnership rather than dominance.”

The retreats teach the language of the horse, and how to lead with a light touch.

“A good leader is not somebody who slams down a fist and makes demands. It’s somebody who builds partnerships,” says Hutchins. “That’s what happens with horses.”

Hutchins teaches a progression that leads from suggestion to request to telling and consequence. It’s a process that works not just for horses, but for people and families.

“Those are lessons we learn for horses, but they are also life lessons on how to deal with our children, our wives and husbands. We teach leadership,” he said.

For the dozen or so families who go through the Warrior Family Retreat, it’s a time to bond, heal and learn life lessons.

Being around animals allows people to just be themselves, says Hutchins. The horses that families work with are trained. But they all have their personalities.

Equine assistance therapy is aimed at helping husbands and wives re-learn to work together,

“Often, we hear the situation where the husband is overseas and mom is at home,” says Hutchins. “Mom has set all the rules. The kids live by the rules. All of a sudden, dad comes back. The parters have to learn to become partners again.”

Out in nature

As Collingwood describes it, the event is a true retreat.

“It’s away from their everyday surroundings. It’s relaxing. There’s no stress,” she said.

“At the end of the weekend, they all saddle up their horses and ride into the woods.” It’s a moment of contentment that caps a very big weekend.

For some participants, the reconnection with an animal is part of the healing process, says Collingwood. Some soldiers grew up with horses. Now, they can renew that love.

“Riding these past seven years, I know what horses have done for me,” says Collingwood. “Building up that self-confidence and self-esteem has been huge. I’d love to see other people take advantage of that…. I feel so fortunate that, as an Auxiliary member, we can be there in our Valley with this program.”

Warrior Family Retreat is paid for by Natural Horsemanship Center fundraisers, the biggest being the annual Equine Fashion Show, in which “horses and humans get all duded up and go down the runway,” says Hutchins. Local tack and clothing shops provide the fashions.

Warrior Family Retreat is supported by the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center’s Family Fund. You can learn more about it at or by e-mailing to Or, call the Northwest Natural Horsemanship center at (425) 222-7911.

Photos by Karen Wegehenkel

Children get a hands-on experience with horses at the Warrior Family Retreat, put on by volunteers this weekend, Aug. 30 and 31,  in Fall City.





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