Injured soldiers train as cowboys to regain confidence

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Cowboy soldier
Image caption,
Lance Corporal Hare with Playgirl

A Stetson, chaps and cowboy boots aren't the usual uniform for a soldier, but they're what Lance Corporal Jay Hare from 45 Commando Royal Marines wears to work these days.

An experienced soldier with three tours of Afghanistan, Jay has spent the last four months learning how to ride and look after horses on a farm in the rolling Aberdeenshire countryside.

It is part of the 29 year old's rehabilitation after being severely injured nearly two years ago when he stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device in the Sangin Valley.

He said: "I'm just learning to adapt to the world with a prosthetic leg. I lost my left leg below the knee, digits to my right hand and my left eye."

Jay spent five weeks in hospital, and then went to Headley Court, the military rehabilitation centre in Surrey.

"I went in there in a wheelchair, and walked out, with the basics of learning how to run," he said.

Now Jay is preparing for life outside the military, with the help of the charity Horseback UK. It specialises in Western Riding - the technique used by cowboys.

Regaining confidence

The theory is that the patience required to work with the horses, and the peace of the farm, will help heal mental and physical scars.

Co-founder Jock Hutchison grew up around horses and is also a former Marine.

"I always thought there was a synergy between the two," he explained, "The team work and bonding that happens in both worlds are similar, so that's what gave me the idea.

"Many of the guys who come home are lacking a limb or two, and the horse provides the mobility to get them back up on the hills. Most of us joined up because we wanted to be outside, and the horse gets you there."

Rather than focus on their disability, the injured soldiers build up confidence and physical strength while learning new outdoor skills. It's hoped these will come in useful when they eventually leave the military.

"These guys are young men - most of them are more able bodied than people with four limbs. If you get the guys directly involved, helping themselves, they're from a world where solving problems and doing the impossible is fairly normal."

As he saddles up Playgirl, one of the 20 American Quarter horses on the farm, Jay Hare looks as if he's been working with the animals for years, rather than just a few months.

"I can see the benefits of being on a horse. You have to be calm around a horse [and] you're able to enjoy the outdoors again and try something you've never tried before."

Working on the farm

The plan for the charity's immediate future is to start a full working farm, so the newly trained cowboys can herd cattle properly.

Long term, they hope veterans who recover there will help set up other rehabilitation centres - run by soldiers for soldiers.

Jay Hare is hoping he can work there permanently when he gets a medical discharge, and is already helping others who arrive with similar injuries to his own.

"The first couple of days, you see a change in the lads. By the end of the course they're all laughing and smiling, and it makes it all worthwhile," he said.

"Life does go on, you just adapt to it and love it."

To find out more about Horseback UK, you can listen to Laura Maxwell's interview with its co-founder Jock Hutchinson on BBC Radio 5 live Gabby Logan on Wednesday, 13 October between 1300-1400 BST.