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Tanya Punt is transforming a near-death experience into a life-giving opportunity for veterans who, like her, have suffered a traumatic brain injury or another ravage of war.

Punt, 45, of Billings, was thrown from a horse April 12, 2014, during a barrel racing competition, landing on her helmet-less head. Doctors feared she wouldn’t survive her brain injury, or that she’d at least be paralyzed on her left side. Instead she made a complete recovery — except for losing her senses of smell and taste.

With her competitive riding career over — she cashed a check after a barrel racing competition six months to the day after her injury, then hung it up for good — Punt has found a good cause for the tack she used to use five times every week: the Horses Spirits Healing program at the Intermountain Equestrian Center.

“I didn’t need all this (tack) anymore,” she said Saturday as veterans prepared for their time with the horses inside the center’s arena. “It was nice to find someone else who can use it.”

Her husband, David, an eight-year army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, said he’s not one for horses — but he does enjoy helping veterans deal with the issues that they often bring home following combat.

“My wife and I are copacetic,” he said with a grin, “and not everyone has that. She had a traumatic brain injury, and she can relate to those guys.”

Twice each week, equine therapist counselors help four to six veterans at a time with groundwork, leading the horses or riding a pair of Norwegian Fjords, a mother/daughter combination of former pack horses named Dip and Dot.

“We are always on the lookout for tack donations,” said Anvia Hampton, an equine therapist counselor who directs the program. “Until now, we haven’t had an adult-sized saddle. This donation will make it a lot easier to provide lessons.”

After seeing all the good work being done with her former tack Saturday, Punt said she’d return with even more equipment for the program to put to use.

“If it can benefit somebody,” she said, “I want to do it.”

One of those benefited Saturday was Connie Hatley, who lives south of Ryegate and served during the mid-1970s as one of the navy’s first air traffic controllers.

“If you are tense, I find these horses very sympathetic,” she said. “They are well-trained. You never have to worry about being kicked.”

Miguel Gonzalez, of Huntley, who founded Warrior Wishes Montana, a website that keeps veterans up to date about the services available to them across the state, fought in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Multiple injuries to his knee, back and biceps resulted in his 100-percent military disability.

He said he founded the organization in September 2015 with the idea that “there are a lot of people out there willing to help veterans.”

The website, www.warriorwishesmontana.com, includes tributes to the Horses Spirits Healing program and many others that serve Montana’s more than 100,000 veterans.

“We are an organization that’s run strictly by veterans. Nobody takes a salary,” Gonzalez said.

Barb Skelton owns the Intermountain Equestrian Center together with her husband, Paul Gatzemeier. She calls Dip and Dot “gentle giants” and said veterans “feel a sense of accomplishment just leading them around the arena.”

When the veterans talk privately, they sometimes talk about how they were treated upon their return to civilian life, Gatzemeier said, “and how they don’t want others treated like they were.”

Another veteran, Bob Crandall, uses a wheelchair, yet is able to do groundwork with a smaller horse named Mastercard. On Saturday, Gatzemeier got quite the workout pushing Crandall’s wheelchair along the dirt floor of the arena while Crandall did his groundwork with Mastercard.

Crandall praised Punt for thinking of the Horses Spirits Healing program when it came time to donate.

“We’ve learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said with a laugh.

“I just love to see people being with horses,” said Hampton, the equine therapist, as she kept a watchful eye on everything going on in the arena. “These horses feel at home hanging out with people, and they have a sixth sense. They seem to understand what the veterans are feeling.”

“They do have a calming effect,” said Lynn Angvick of Billings, another veteran. “Guys with PTSD can be withdrawn and antisocial, but around these horses they’re different. Younger veterans, older veterans — it’s all the same. The horse feels what you feel.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.