Paul Cairney always seems to have a smile on his face, especially when he's shoveling manure.
"I know it sounds crazy, but cleaning out the stalls is just peaceful for me," Cairney said.
Cairney is the chief of police for the Argyle Independent School District. After a long day with students of all ages, he unwinds in his barn surrounded by what he calls the greatest creatures on Earth.
"There is something about a horse," he said. "They have a level of empathy I've never experienced in another animal."
The Air Force veteran came to rely on that empathy in 2008 when he returned from deployment in Baghdad. The normally laid back and affable man had become easily agitated, scatter-brained, and suffered from nightmares and anxiety.
Cairney's wife Lynn thought the symptoms would pass, but they didn't, and soon the couple sought help.
"I knew I had to be an example. I was a leader of men overseas, and if I'm not brave enough to go out there and say 'I need help,' then what kind of example am I setting?" Cairney asked.
Cairney started getting treatment with doctors and leaned on the support of his wife. But he says he found most of his healing inside his barn with his horse "Thor."
"It's hard for people to understand, but I quickly realized the barn was where I needed to be," Cairney said.
In recent years, equine therapy has grown by leaps and bounds. It's used to treat a range of conditions and afflictions -- from autism to PTSD.
Cairney said he hadn't heart of horse therapy at the time, but he experienced the healing powers firsthand.
"My horse could just read me. He knew if I was having a bad day and he'd just absorb that stress. He wouldn't turn it back on me," Cairney said.
It's not a stretch to say Cairney's hours in the barn caring for his horse or riding across their land gave him back his life. Cairney's wife says watching the animal care for her husband was one of the most singularly beautiful things she's ever seen.
"It's a gift that you don't expect and how can you ever repay?" Lynn asked.
The couple always had a love of horses and owned two that traveled with them wherever they lived, but they felt they were called to do more to help the animals after they gave Paul back his quality of life.
"It really is poetic because they helped me and now that's what we're doing for them," Cairney said.
As Paul recovered, he and Lynn started rescuing horses destined for slaughter. The couple would hitch their trailer to their truck and travel across the country picking up elderly and abused horses.
"We couldn't leave anywhere empty handed," Lynn said.
They've taken in about a dozen over the years. Lynn and Paul, who both have full-time jobs, spend every spare moment rehabilitating and caring for their new family members.
Paul and Lynn say their mission is simple: They want to give these horses a place to live their final years in rest and comfort.
"I tell them every day that their work is done. They're here to be cared for, they can relax," Cairney said.
Right now Cairney and his wife are funding all the care and shelter themselves. Any horse owner will tell you caring for one animal, let alone eight, can quickly become expensive. Their goal is to become a non-profit and take in even more horses as the years go on.
"This is just the beginning. This is what we do and how we connect," Lynn said.
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