Heroes and Horses: Equine therapy at Warrior Ranch helps veterans, first responders and their families

Former United States Army Captain Geoffrey works with Shmay at Warrior Ranch. (Credit: Nicholas Grasso)

When veterans and first responders arrive at Warrior Ranch for a Saturday retreat, most are eager to start their day bonding with horses. But on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, there was more to reflect on before anyone took the reins.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Eileen Shanahan, the founder and president of Warrior Ranch, a not-for-profit that offers equine therapy to veterans, first responders and their families, expressed the importance of remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and asked the dozen or so people gathered to share their thoughts.

Former U.S. Army Capt. Geoffrey Costa took the moment to share news of a recent tragedy, saying: “This past Tuesday, we lost another good [West Point] classmate of mine, 42 years old, who just … couldn’t find the way to cope with basically being off the battlefield but not mentally being off the battlefield.”

Stories like that are all too common, and are the principal reason Warrior Ranch exists. According to the most recent National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, 6,146 veterans committed suicide in 2020, an average of nearly 17 per day.

Suicide is the second highest cause of death among veterans ages 18 to 44, the report found. That number does not include “overdose mortality,” which it classifies under “unintentional injuries,” or accidents, the highest cause of death for vets in this age bracket.

“It’s not just our brothers and our sisters that we lost on the battlefield we’re remembering this Memorial Day, or any day,” Mr. Costa said. “But we’re remembering those that we’ve lost since they’ve come home.”

Members of the armed forces can experience a close sense of camaraderie while serving. Upon returning home, many struggle to reintegrate into civilian life, and often disconnect from families and friends and isolate. 

For some veterans, battle trauma and subsequent solitude has led to depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts. Warrior Ranch participants have cited the program, as well as other similar initiatives and networks, as crucial to their healing.

“We all kind of went through similar things, it’s like a whole different language,” said John Shea, who spent six years as a military policeman in the Air Force and recently achieved six years of sobriety. “And with the comfortability, it’s a judgment-free zone. We laugh, we cry. … These are people that can call me 24-7, 365, I’ll answer that phone and be there for them and they will be there for me.”

Although opening up to fellow service members is crucial, Mr. Shea said he has finally reached a place where he can comfortably share his feelings with others outside of his peer network — but it’s still not easy.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever shared half as much with civilians and friends as I have with the people here,” Mr. Costa said.

Warrior Ranch strives to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health challenges, such as anxiety, which more than 30% of U.S. adults experience at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

After serving four years in the Army, Fran Noack now works a high-pressure civilian job as dispatcher at Suffolk County Police headquarters in Yaphank. She turned to the Warrior Ranch to cope with the stress of the job but also to fulfill her desire to help others.

“I want to be part of something that’s helping people and helping my fellow veterans, and not only them, but the first responders and their families,” said Ms Noack, who also volunteers at the ranch feeding and tending to the horses. “Being able to come here helps me while I’m helping them,” she said. “And it also feels like I’m actually part of a group, and I feel like I’m back in that niche of things that gives me structure.”

Ms. Shanahan, a lifelong lover of horses and a member of a military family, formed the not-for-profit in 2016. She explained that horses need humans as leaders, both physically and emotionally, and can pick up their handler’s body language and heartbeat, influencing their behavior.

“This is a recreational therapeutic outlet,” Ms. Shanahan said. “You get away from your day, you don’t think about anything else. You have to be 100% in the moment with the horse, because if you’re not, you can get hurt. They relax you, but you have to be focused.”

More experienced participants, including Mr. Costa, can lead the horses to jump over obstacles. The 41-year-old worked with Shmay, a miniature paint about half the size of other horses at the ranch, which are often former race horses. Shmay came to Warrior Ranch when his owner could no longer care for him, and requires hands on training and rehabilitation to keep him healthy and domesticated. Other horses, including Sully, a former race horse who had an eye removed before arriving at Warrior Ranch about two years ago, needs a little more care and training than the others. The coaches, volunteers and retreat participants at Warrior Ranch help these horses not only heal physically, but also overcome limitations and fears and develop bonds with humans.

Mr. Costa’s bearded face lit up when Shmay followed his lead over obstacles, and later rolled on his back seeking a belly rub. But the combat veteran doesn’t always experience such joy. Like many of his peers, he has struggled with PTSD.

“I came home in 2011, and it took about a year or two for me to kind of realize that I wasn’t doing well,” he said.

After connecting with various veterans groups, Mr. Costa felt healthy for several years, during which time he co-parented three daughters and took on leadership responsibilities at work delivering building supplies. But last August, he said he felt the feelings he had worked through reemerge, and proactively decided to seek care. He discovered the Warrior Ranch, which helped him find a sense of peace and a new passion. When Mr. Costa is not spending his free time at Warrior Ranch, he tends to a neighbor’s horses several nights a week.

“There are some days I get there and just sit in a stall, hanging out with the horse and I think, ‘Yeah, this is what I needed,’” he said. “Then there are some days where I put the saddle on it and get out and ride it. [After] sitting in two hours of traffic getting on horseback and then running around, it makes life better. For me, that therapy for the heart is just special.”

Ms. Shanahan said over 200 veterans have visited the Warrior Ranch since it opened in 2016. Each retreat welcomes a dozen or so participants, most of whom live in Suffolk County, but many come from further distances.

Richard Chu, an investigator with the Albany Police Department, rose from his bed in Saratoga County at 4 a.m. Saturday to arrive on time for his first Warrior Ranch retreat.

After 17 years on the force, Mr. Chu said he’s encountered death firsthand on countless occasions.

“I’ve had a baby die in my hands while [administering CPR],” he said. “[There’s been a] bunch of instances, where you’re fighting with someone that’s trying to pull a gun on you. It just builds up and you just go through those calls, from call to call and it doesn’t bother you … until it builds up.”

On this May Saturday, Mr. Chu worked with Juliette Hackett, an experienced horse trainer and the ranch’s sole paid employee. As barn manager and program coordinator, she knows how to connect veterans and first responders with their horses and get them to open up about their struggles — often within half an hour of working together.

As they begin grooming, she emphasizes that horses have heightened senses, not unlike many of the retreat participants.

“That draws this familiar bond with them right off the bat,” she said. “A veteran or a first responder, they feel like their senses are heightened … when they walk into a room, they’re reading the room.”

The ranch also welcomes family members to participate in the retreats. Carmela Raguso and her daughters, Mila, 11, and Eva, 10, have been visiting Warrior Ranch since 2018, after husband and father Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso died in a helicopter crash in Iraq.

“I feel like the first time I came, the girls were here, and they were loving it,” she said. “At that time I was still very quiet, I was still processing a lot of stuff and standing back, watching the girls enjoy themselves … That helped my soul.”

Eventually, Ms. Raguso began working with the horses and grew close with the veterans who have worked through their unique struggles. She said those interactions “made me feel like there was another side to come out of.”

The family’s morning had begun at Calverton National Cemetery, where they visited Sgt. Raguso’s grave. Without knowing if anyone would be there that day, Ms. Raguso decided the family could use a trip to Warrior Ranch.

“It means everything that we could drive up and pop right in,” she said.

Seven years into her project, Ms. Shanahan said the ranch still survives “year-to-year.” For her, financial stability means the ranch can be open daily for the next Ms. Raguso in need of a haven.

To make that a reality, Ms. Shanahan said she is actively seeking grants and is considering starting a fundraising campaign that will see portions of the property renamed in honor of donors.

“We’ve raised between $150,000 to $200,000 every year,” she said. “But we spend that much every year because it’s a ranch, you have to feed the animals … between hay and grain, then you have vet costs and you have training costs, medical costs.

“85% to 90% of this is volunteer work, and we need funding in order to be open seven days a week,” she continued. “We need to be here so that if somebody’s having a bad day, they can just pull in the gate and come in.”

For more information on the ranch and ways to support its mission call 631-740-9049 or visit [email protected].