Horses help vets, first responders take reins against PTSD


PIPERSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Edward Gilliard still suffers the effects of the combat wounds he received in the Vietnam War: His voice is a soft whisper, and his legs ache.

But it was a daunting caseload as a career social worker in Philadelphia — years spent investigating child-abuse cases, working with adjudicated delinquents, and later supporting those with AIDS — that stirred back to life the trauma he had experienced in combat.

For years he underwent traditional psychotherapy for his post-traumatic stress disorder, with mixed results. It wasn’t until he worked with horses at Shamrock Reins — a nonprofit, equine-assisted therapy ranch for military personnel, first responders, and their families in Pipersville, Bucks County — that Gilliard found the serenity he had long sought, amid the camaraderie of other war vets who understood.

“I am at peace,” said Gilliard, of Elkins Park, who served as a Marine.

It was the vision of Janet Brennan, the founder of Shamrock Reins, to help veterans who suffered from the effects of war.

“They don’t have that brotherhood or sisterhood when they leave the military,” said Brennan, a former trauma nurse and pharma executive. “This gives them a feeling of purpose.”

And those 1,000-pound animals understand them, she said.

Horses were not in Brennan’s comfort zone, growing up in a rowhouse in northeast Philadelphia, where her mother was a bookkeeper and her father — a Vietnam veteran — was a Philadelphia firefighter. But, after a 20-year career running international drug trials, which required constant travel to 65 countries, Brennan was ready for a change.

“I didn’t feel like I was doing any good in the corporate world,” said Brennan, 59, who now lives in Furlong, Bucks County. She bought her first horse, Irish, in 1997 and set off to build an equine-therapy program for veterans.

As a critical care nurse, she knew the devastating effects trauma could have if not addressed. This was her chance to give back, especially to the veterans and first responders she’d known in her childhood

“I just had to do this,” she said.

Brennan purchased the 23-acre Pipersville property in 2013, and a year later founded Shamrock Reins, its name inspired by her Irish heritage and the belief the calming nature of horses would help veterans. Currently there are 15 horses in the 18-stall barn, and most of them have Irish-themed names, like Emerald, Paddy, and Shamrock.

Participants in the equine-facilitated psychotherapy program work with a licensed therapist to navigate course obstacles in an arena that represents challenges they face in their daily lives, like PTSD, anxiety, and other medical issues. In the therapeutic horsemanship program, participants bond with horses through grooming, leading, trail-riding, and other activities. The goal is for participants to regain trust in others, and to increase self-confidence and social skills. Sessions are conducted by a certified therapeutic riding instructor.

“There is hard work being done here,” said Brennan. The mission is not like other “barns” where people can drop in. There are structured individual sessions, she said.

The organization serves about 60 core participants, plus a few hundred more who attend workshops or other programs, and it has an annual operating budget of about $200,000. The organization’s services are free, supported by donations. Brennan, who leases the property back to the nonprofit for $1 a month, draws no salary but has a list of “jobs” to keep the organization going: everything from leading the board of directors to cooking lunch for the participants.

The program follows all required regulations, including background checks and military-culture training for staff and volunteers. Staff members include licensed therapists, an equine care coordinator, certified therapeutic riding instructors, an equine specialist, and a barn coordinator who lives on the property. Volunteers help with programs as well as general chores and upkeep.

Shamrock Reins also works with Philadelphia and Bucks County courts, which refer veterans to the program, said Tim Wynn, 39, who works as a mentor coordinator for the Philadelphia Veterans Court. He is also a program participant who rarely misses a Tuesday with Tika.

Back in 2003, Wynn, a Marine, went from the battlefields of Iraq, to discharge, to a bar fight in Philadelphia in less than a week. He abused alcohol and the prescription drugs for anxiety he received at the Veterans Administration before finally being diagnosed with PTSD.

“I struggled when I came back” from the war, said Wynn, of northeast Philadelphia. “I had seven arrests and spent a year of my life in prison.”

He attended a retreat at Shamrock Reins about four years ago, and life turned around. Now married with three children, he said working with the horses has become “one of those tools” he uses to keep his life on the straight and narrow.

He credits Brennan with creating a family atmosphere that encourages vets to connect with each other, especially over home-cooked meals in the center’s cozy break room.

Gathered around a table “is where you find out if someone is struggling,” said Wynn. That’s when other veterans in the group can easily provide support, he said.

It was while in Center City for jury duty that former Air Force Reservist Andrew Bogert, 53, of Roxborough, discovered Shamrock Reins. During a break from court, he wandered into a veterans fair and came across the group’s booth.

“I never looked back,” said Bogert, a nurse, who now attends weekly sessions.

Five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight medic — on cargo jets ferrying the critically wounded to a hospital in Germany — had left Bogart with PTSD. The death he saw and the constant danger he endured took its toll, he said. At Shamrock Reins, he met veterans who knew exactly what he had experienced.

“When you have that type of bond with people you’ve just met, it gives you the reassurance that you’re in the right place,” Bogert said about the programs.

Recently, the group lost one of its own.

Donegal, a 10-year-old American Quarter and Paint Horse mix, was found down in the pasture suffering from colic. An emergency call was put into Shamrock Reins’ Brennan, who had just arrived at Lincoln Financial Field for a preseason Eagles game, where she had to make the wrenching decision to euthanize the horse.

Lynn Skiba, 54, of Bedminster, was one of the participants who discovered the ailing Donegal. A former police officer with Doylestown Borough Police Department, Skiba was overcome with emotion when she learned the horse could not be saved.

“I cried when it hit me on the way home,” she said.

Donegal’s death hit the rest of group just as hard, said Brennan, who made sure each program participant was called with the news.

The horses “really mean a lot to them,” Brennan said.

In a few weeks, the group was to gather to memorialize Donegal, whose ashes are now in a large box in Brennan’s office, she said. They would get though it like they do everything — together.