Saddles in Service: Horses Healing Heroes

November 2020 I was looking for a worthy horse related non-profit that I could help, and I saw that Saddles in Service was near my home. I took a tour of the foundation and what they did and I have been hooked on volunteering for them ever since. This amazing foundation helps veterans, active duty, law enforcement and first responders dealing with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and other job related stress by connecting them with horses.

The main Saddles in Service location is in East San Diego County (Alpine) on 10 acres and they have 10 horses that are mainly rescued or they are owner surrendered horses. These “heroes” that participate in the program do so free of charge and the transformation and joy that working with horses gives them is very satisfying to witness. Not only does learning how to care for horses, work with them in the round pen, and learning to ride bring joy to the hero, the numerous volunteers that help at the ranch enjoy it as much if not more than the heroes.

Jay helped overcome his PTS while spending time with Red at Saddles in Service. Photo: Erpelding Photography
Dave Vikander, a Vietnam Veteran and head wrangler for Saddles in Service, has been volunteering for almost 4 years teaching heroes horsemanship and riding. Photo: RubieTuesday Photography

Many of the participants become addicted to being with the horses that they in turn volunteer and teach others horsemanship and riding and share their new love of horses with their fellow heroes. A few of the heroes have said that the program has saved them as they were on the brink of committing suicide.

Saddles in Service was founded in 2017 by Tammy and Mike Oluvic. Mike is a retired Navy Officer and he was dealing with PTS which was adversely affecting him and his family. They discovered that working with horses was very healing and therapeutic for Mike and they decided to share horses with others dealing with PTS. Since then Saddles in Service has helped over 560 veterans, delivered over 5,300 individual program sessions and they have adopted over 22 horses. Saddles in Service was featured in Michael Gier’s award winning documentary; Wounded Heroes – Operation Outdoor Freedom just filmed about Saddles in Service featuring one of the heroes and their show should be out this year on the Discovery Channel. Host Jay Garstecki was so impressed with the program he asked Tammy if they could come back next year and feature a female hero.

Branden Vriens just learned to ride this year and is working cattle at the Van Aken ranch in Descanso. Branden will appear in this year’s Outdoor Operation Freedom with Jay Garstecki. Photo: Erpelding Photography
Rob Treadwell is both a hero and volunteer at Saddles in Service and learned to ride. He is pictured here with Stormie who is a 6-year-old Arabian mare up for sale to make room for a beginner horse to teach riding at Saddles in Service. Rob oversees the care of the horses and ranch animals and enjoys riding in the local parades with Dave Vikander with the Hole In the Wall gang in authentic cowboy attire. Photo: Erpelding Photography
Jason Deaner has become quite a good horseman and is pictured riding Thor, one of the SIS rescued horses for experienced riders. Jason helped retrain King a Thoroughbred horse that SIS rescued and he has gone on to be an eventing prospect at Jennifer Hawthorne’s training barn. Jason is a police officer and is also serves on the Saddles in Service board. Photo: Erpelding Photography

I love all of the horses at Saddles in Service, but Red, a 12 year old Percheron Thoroughbred cross, is my favorite. She is a stunning mare with tons of personality. I began working daily with her and she is one of many of the heroes favorites. She loves a good belly scratch which gives everyone that witnesses her expression a healthy laugh. She requires a good leader and she has turned many of the heroes and volunteers into very good horsemen. Jay, one of my heroes that works with her stated, “Red, you make me feel good about myself!” Jay’s dad was recently down from Truckee and watched Jay work with Red, playing with her in the arena, grooming, saddling and riding her. He said after the session, “Thank you for giving me my son back!”

Bonita is another super star at the ranch. She is turning 34 this year and is a Arabian Swedish Warmblood cross that was surrendered to SIS and she has taught so many heroes about horses. She brings tears to so many when heroes round pen her and she joins up with her person and quietly walks with them wherever they go. She has taught many how to post her big trot and how to sit her lovely canter.

Saddles in Service is growing due to the amazing changes they make in everyone’s lives that experiences how the program helps the heroes, the horses, and the volunteers. One such hero and volunteer is Tom Bercher. Tom was working in San Diego and began working with Thor, one of the horses that came to Saddles in Service after he was found abandoned from a fire in East San Diego County. Tom is a top notch horseman and now leads up the Wyoming division of Saddles in Service. Heroes that become proficient riders are welcome to sign up to attend a week of riding with Tom in Wyoming in the Big Horn Mountains. They get to ride the open country and work cattle in the majestic wild country. They also learn leather work with a master leather craftsman. One of the heroes had such a great time he donated $1,500 to send another hero on that amazing life experience.

Mario Sanders is a Marine veteran who came to Saddles in Service last year where he overcame his fear of horses, learned to ride, and recently presented SIS CEO Tammy Oluvic with a plaque thanking her foundation for helping him heal from a terrible auto accident where they said he may not walk again.
Amanda Munson had her Navy retirement ceremony at Saddles in Service with the much beloved Dylan. Amanda is a hero and volunteer at SIS. Photo: Erpelding Photography

Another volunteering couple is Donna and Sterling Sinema. They are leading the expansion of Saddles in Service to Texas. Last year they purchased a 30 acre ranch in Elkhart, TX and are having their Open House Jan. 15th to introduce the program to heroes in TX. Saddles in Service is excited to expand their program and reach even more heroes.

This year Saddles in Service also hired its first employee Megan Houlihan. Megan is an amazing young lady that has extensive training with top english and western trainers. She is an accomplished hand with a rope and is overseeing the training of the volunteer wranglers and ranch hands that keep the program humming along. The team is constantly teaching and training and bringing a consistency to the program to give all involved a positive and safe experience with the horses.

Saddles in Service hosts many fundraisers to keep the hay, farrier and vet bills paid, and this year they held their first Golf Tournament at the Cottonwood Golf Course in El Cajon. The tournament was a huge success and the 2nd Annual Saddles in Service is scheduled for May 6, 2022 with sponsors already lining up to help keep the SIS mission moving forward. Rick King of Caliber Home Loans – and BW Industrial Sales – have already renewed their $5,000 3 Star Sponsorship and Bob’s Crane Service – joined this year’s event with a $2,500 2 Star Sponsorship.

Last year San Diego Saddlery – hosted a fun show and also did a holiday raffle and is a constant supporter of Saddles in Service. This year in the planning stages is an Open House in June and a Gala in September.

Saddles in Service is grateful for the support they have been given by their amazing and growing list of donors and volunteers. 95% of all donations goes directly to support the program. There are no paid executives or board members. To learn more about SIS please visit their website –

by Cheryl Erpelding