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  1. ITV Report

Horses once helped lead soldiers into war - now they're bringing them back out of the battle

During World War One, horses played an instrumental role on the battlefield.

Today the animals are no longer used in warfare but have found a new role: helping soldiers in recovery.

Veterans who have suffered mental and physical trauma are taking part in courses set up by a former Royal Marine, which use horses as a tool to support their return to civilian life.

Jock Hutchison founded Horseback UK in 2008 after he met 16 young men who came back from Afghanistan with life-changing injuries.

Jock Hutchison with his quarter horse, Gus. Credit: ITV News

"They'd gone through an incredible medical journey, but felt that we could add a bit to the recovery process by giving people time and space after the medical, to get that confidence to embrace life again," he told ITV News.

Veterans are referred to the the Scottish charity after clinical care.

However, over the last few years the courses have seen a marked shift in the nature of the injuries veterans are recovering from.

The riders in Aboyne, on the edge of the Highlands in Aberdeenshire. Credit: ITV News

"When we started 80% of the people we served were physically hurt," Mr Hutchison said. "Now 80% of the people we serve have been hurt by a mental injury."

Billy McWilliam is one of them. He served 26 years in the Army and had a "bad experience in Kosovo".

He told ITV News the benefits of working with horses have been life changing.

Billy McWilliam was referred from combat stress. Credit: ITV News

"When I went to Kosovo and when I came back, things weren't right," he said.

"But this course, it's really brought me out and made me feel like somebody again."

The courses, which teach veterans equine care and riding skills, run for three weeks over four months and offer qualifications in personal development.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced late Wednesday the creation of a specialist Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, providing cash for projects like Horseback UK.

It comes as part of a £10 million funding pledge made by the MoD to mark the centenary of the Armistice - amid criticism over the support given to ex-service personnel.

Roxanne Macaulay joined the WRAC (Women's Royal Army Corps) in 1975. Credit: ITV News

Some veterans told ITV News they were frustrated this kind of support for projects supporting ex-service personnel had not come sooner in their life.

Roxanne Macaulay, who served in the Women's Royal Army Corps, said: "It's almost 40 years since I left the army. But if I had this I think my family would have benefitted from it.

"I probably would have been a better mother, a better wife, better friend." Sean McGowan, who spent 18 years in the RAF, said he also struggled getting help when his service ended in 2000.

"Long after the bullets and the bombs have stopped falling - that little worm that was seeded in your head it continues to grow and that pain never goes away," he said.

Sean McGowan struggled after leaving the RAF. Credit: ITV News

"The lack of support that the military certainly gave us - directly from the military - never led to any pathways being created.

"So when I started to have problems, psychologically with my mental health, I didn't know where to turn to."

Charity founder Mr Hutchison said the techniques used on the courses are not revolutionary, but are built around the benefits of care for the animals.

"If we can make people leaders of horses by being kind and patient then they learn to recapture those skills that they had before they were ill," he said.

Former Royal Navy officer Gary Crossan said after 19 years of service the transition into civilian life had broken his confidence and he found himself hiding away from the public.

Gary Crossan is recovering after suffering from anxiety and depression. Credit: ITV News

After working with the horses he feels a changed man.

"A lot of other people have said to me, mainly my partner, that I'm like a different person, demeanour wise," he said.

"I'm very calm and (that's the) way I approach just about everything now in my life."

The significance of the role the animals have played in his and others' recovery is not lost on him.

The relationship between soldiers and horses has transformed in a century. Credit: ITV News

"Horses helped 100 years ago in World War One taking soldiers into battle," he said.

"It has kind of flipped in the sense that the horses are now bringing the men back out of battle.

"The horses are helping them to progress to lead better lives."