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Heroes and Horses: Calverton’s Warrior Ranch is a respite for equines and veterans alike

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 2023, 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 organization that offers equine therapy to veterans and first responders and their families, expressed the importance of remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice and asked the dozen or so people gathered to share their experiences.

Former U.S. Army Capt. Geoffrey Costa broke the silence with news of a difficult tragedy he was grappling with. “This past Tuesday, we lost another good [West Point] classmate of mine, 42 years old,” Costa told the group of fellow vets. “[He] 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 the principal reason Calverton’s Warrior Ranch welcomes around a dozen participants every other Saturday for a single-day retreat in which they tend to horses, from brushing their coats to leading them through exercises, and in the process, care for themselves and one another.

According to the most recent National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, 6,392 veterans committed suicide in 2021, an average of more than 17 per day.

Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among veterans ages under 45 years old, 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,” Costa says. “But we’re remembering those that we’ve lost since they’ve come home.”

Shared Experiences

Most of the veterans and first responders who attend Warrior Ranch retreats live in Suffolk County, but many come from further distances, and many more return for not only the horses, but the connections they’ve built with their peers. Members of the armed forces can experience a close sense of camaraderie while serving, but upon returning home, many struggle to reintegrate into civilian life, and often find themselves isolated from families and friends. For some veterans, the aftermath of battle trauma can lead to depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts. Warrior Ranch participants have cited the program, as well as other similar initiatives and networks, as being crucial to their healing.

“We all kind of went through similar things, it’s like a whole different language,” says John Shea, who spent six years as a military policeman in the Air Force and recently achieved seven 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, Shea says 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,” Costa says.

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 for 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 Warrior Ranch to not only 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,” says 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 says. “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.”

Overcoming Obstacles

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

“This is a recreational therapeutic outlet. 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,” Shanahan says. “They relax you, but you have to be focused.”

More experienced participants, including Costa, can lead the horses to jump over obstacles. He often works with Shmay, a miniature paint, a breed of horse noted for its splatter-patterned coat, 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 racehorse 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.

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 says.

After connecting with various veteran groups, 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 in August 2022, he says 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 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.”

Relief Efforts

Richard Chu, an investigator with the Albany Police Department, rose from his bed in Saratoga County at 4 a.m. Saturday last May to arrive on time for his first Warrior Ranch retreat. He 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 says. “A veteran or a first responder, they feel like their senses are heightened … when they walk into a room, they’re reading the room.”

After 17 years on the force, Chu says 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.”

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 says. “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, Raguso began working with the horses and grew close with the veterans who have worked through their unique struggles. She says 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, Raguso decided the family could use a trip to Warrior Ranch.

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

A Call to Action

Shanahan says the ranch survives “year-to-year.” For her, financial stability means the ranch can be open daily for the next Raguso in need of a haven.

To make that a reality, she actively seeks grants and has started a fundraising campaign that will see portions of the property renamed in honor of donors. Shanahan announced the ranch’s green arena, a grassy plot where horses trot and guests can pet and feed them through fencing, will soon be renamed in honor of Riverhead Building Supply Corp., the first participant in this campaign.

“We’ve raised between $150,000 to $200,000 every year,” she says. “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.”

Even with 85 to 90% of all that work being volunteer, Warrior Ranch is open seven days a week all year, and Shanahan carefully uses that funding to ensure the doors stay open. “We need to be here so that if somebody’s having a bad day, they can just pull in the gate and come in,” she says.

And it’s worth every penny. 

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is encouraged to dial 988 to access The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Veterans and active duty service members can access the Veterans Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 and selecting option 1. For more information on the Warrior Ranch and ways to support its mission, call 631-740-9049 or email [email protected]