Warrior Ranch horse therapy helps veterans, first responders
With watchful eyes and gentle pressure on the rope, Joe Mastanduno effortlessly — and wordlessly — guided Ranger, a quarter horse, through a figure-eight course.
“It’s a powerful feeling: You can move this thousand-pound animal just by looking at him or pointing, and he’s like ‘all right, we’re going,’ ” said Mastanduno, 30, a utility worker who lives in Farmingville. “But it only comes with you being comfortable with yourself and being calm.”
A former Marine Corps private who served in Yemen and Bahrain from 2011 to 2013, Mastanduno was one of nine participants at a weekend retreat in April at Warrior Ranch Foundation in Calverton, where veterans, first responders and horses work together toward rehabilitation, wellness and mutual healing.
Mastanduno has groomed, exercised, ridden and lassoed horses for the past two years on visits to the ranch.
“The horse is a very relatable creature,” said Mastanduno, noting that veterans can empathize with the creatures in part because they, too, can be acutely sensitive to noise, touch and being ordered around.
Aside from the therapeutic aspects of working with horses, Mastanduno appreciates the community of fellow veterans. “We’ve all been through our own traumas, and I think here it’s very easy to talk to anyone that’s been involved with serving in any way or means,” he said.
A rescue, Ranger has come a long way from the untrusting, kicking and bucking animal who arrived at the ranch a year ago. Through the gentle and patient care he’s received at the ranch, Ranger is calmer, even displaying a playful side as he picks up and moves a hazard cone with his mouth, ultimately rearranging the obstacle course.
Participants at the ranch seem to love Ranger and Sully, a thoroughbred who’s blind in one eye, because they identify with the trauma they’ve experienced and injuries they’ve sustained, said Eileen Shanahan, Warrior Ranch Foundation's founder and president. When soldiers are wounded, she said, they’re replaced by other soldiers; if horses get hurt or lose a step, they’re also pushed aside.
Homing in on veterans’ and first responders’ sense of duty to serve, protect and rescue, Warrior Ranch asks them to help rescue horses, said Shanahan, 58, of Islip Terrace. “That’s where the [foundation’s] slogan comes from: ‘America’s Heroes Rescuing America’s Icon,’ ” she said. Veterans and first responders “can come to the ranch and forget about the rest of the world for that little while.”
The organization aims to place rehabilitated horses in permanent homes when possible, Shanahan said.
An abiding love of country and horses was the impetus for Shanahan to start Warrior Ranch seven years ago.
Patriotism, she said, was instilled in her by service-oriented family members, many of whom were in the military or were firefighters or police officers. Her father, Jack Shanahan, a former Marine, was part of the group that in 1962 established the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides need-based scholarships to military children.
“As I grew up, I watched my father in this organization,” Shanahan said. “In the ’90s, he asked me to help him behind the scenes.”
Years later, Shanahan and her husband, Jim Ford, began rescuing dogs and horses, including a horse named Warrior that they boarded in Speonk.
Warrior was initially skittish around people and difficult to ride, behavior they later learned was due to blindness in his left eye caused by a virus. Using skills gleaned from studying the techniques of “natural horsemanship,” which entails communicating with horses by observing their natural behavior and through exerting gentle physical pressure and eye contact, Shanahan said she watched Warrior become a trusting, ridable stallion, and realized she could use those skills on other horses.
As the couple welcomed visitors to spend time with their horses, they observed how the interactions benefited both people and the animals. “People felt empowered,” Shanahan said. “They felt comforted. They had more confidence when they left there.”
Borrowing the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation’s concept, which started with one scholarship to one Marine's son and has now given $184 million in scholarships, Shanahan decided in 2014 to start an organization with a similar premise: helping one soldier with one horse. Before long, she was working with an Army veteran with PTSD who wanted to learn about horsemanship.
In October 2019, the foundation signed a 10-year lease with Suffolk County for 6 acres on the site of the former Beagle Club, giving Warrior Ranch — named for Shanahan's first horse — an official home to realize its mission.
Fostering a bond
Trainers at Warrior Ranch aim to teach participants how to communicate with the horses in much the same way that horses communicate with one another. Horses, by nature, are prey animals. Humans, by nature, are predators, Shanahan said.
“Horses' senses are heightened because their lives depend on it,” she said. Because horses are prey and herd animals, humans have to be “the leader of the herd.”
By learning about the nature of horses and how to communicate and lead them, participants also learn about themselves, Shanahan said. For example, as the veterans walk the horses in circles and do other exercises, they see the animals respond to their energy, which in turn makes participants more aware of the energy they’re expressing.
Working with horses gives people a feeling of efficacy and empowerment, agreed Tara Mahoney, CEO and founder of Equine Immersion Project, a national organization, and board member of Horses and Humans Research Foundation, based in Huntsburg, Ohio.
“Scientific research is understanding why horses are a catalyst for change: socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually,” she said.
Shanahan said she has learned that working with a horse requires being 100% in the moment. “You can’t be worried about all these other things going on in your head if you’re with a horse, because you have to pay attention or you can get seriously hurt,” she said.
Moving a thousand-pound animal mostly with your eyes or minimal energy, Shanahan said, helps participants build confidence and awareness of the energy they give off, “the energy everyone else sees and you may not realize you are giving off. Thus, the beginning of a path to healing.”
At Warrior Ranch, veterans start with a grooming and groundwork program — exercises that foster a relationship between human and horse — and can move on to the riding, or even training, program.
An NYPD mounted officer and captain in the Army National Guard, Mike Keegan has observed immediate results as a volunteer equine coach at the ranch.
“I’ve seen a bunch of the guys and gals here, whether they come in stressed, at the end of the day, they have these big smiles on their face that say, ‘I needed today, that release,’ ” said Keegan, 32, who lives in Suffolk County. “Whatever you’re dealing with outside of here, that’s consuming you that maybe leads you to some horrible thoughts, these animals demand your attention.”
Noting that Sully is timid on his right side, where he’s missing an eye, Keegan said, “I think the veterans can see some of themselves in a horse like that. Some would disregard that horse, consider him damaged goods.”
Despite his handicap, Sully has made great progress working with participants at the ranch.
“Just like a veteran: they, too, can be rebuilt and rehabilitated,” Keegan said. “Both of them at the same time are building themselves.”
A day at the ranch
After she had Ranger walk circles around her by communicating with him through her eyes and energy, Jen Baker explained that horses, like veterans, need to have a sense of purpose.
“We find our way together in gentle moments of time,” said Baker, 66, a support professional for the Epilepsy Foundation who lives in Smithtown.
Recalling her experience serving in the Army Medical Corps in Landstuhl, Germany, from 1983 to 2017, she said, “We see the results of combat. It’s a difficult thing. It’s hard to see the soldiers coming through.”
A frequent participant at the ranch, Baker said, “For me, it’s a place of tranquility and renewal. When people are going through hard times, we’re here for each other.”
Since serving in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2013, including seven months in Ramadi, Iraq, Lisa Fischer said she tends to be anxious, which was anything but obvious while she worked with Ranger on a recent Saturday.
When she started participating at the ranch, Fischer said she had a hard time connecting to people. “I felt as though I didn’t belong or fit in anywhere and that no one really understood me or what I had been through while on active duty,” she said.
“Coming here and working with the horses and dealing with other veterans and first responders has definitely made me feel at home again,” said Fischer, 40, a hospital program manager who lives in Medford.
Working with the horses has also reminded her to stop, collect herself and breathe — a far cry from the “go, go, go” ethos of the military, she said. “It’s something that I personally use every day to remind myself that I’m OK,” Fischer said.
Likewise, Constance Gonzalez said that being around other veterans at the ranch lifts her sprits, and working with the horses boosts her confidence. Returning home at the end of 2020 — in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — after serving seven years as an Air Force staff sergeant in Texas proved tough going for her, she said.
“I didn’t get that welcome-home experience,” said Gonzalez, 34, an occupational therapy grad student who lives in Laurel. “I have a lot of anxiety, so just being able to not think about everything else going on, and just focus on your work with the horse, and tuning into it, I think has just helped in general.”
Most veterans and first responders who come into the program seem apprehensive at first, Shanahan said.
“By lunch time, they’re smiling,” she said. “By the end of the day, there’s hugs.”
Currently, the foundation is run almost exclusively by volunteers; it has also benefited from the support of corporations including PSEG Long Island, which has sent volunteers to erect fences, paint and do other jobs around the ranch. In return for the land lease from Suffolk County, the foundation, which is mainly supported through individual and corporate donors, grants and an annual fundraiser, must complete $10,000 in capital improvements each year.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Shanahan. “We’re a nonprofit. We don’t have money, and what we’ve been able to do and get to where we are, has been amazing. And, it’s because of a great group of people who’ve been helping along the way.”
ABOUT THE RANCH
Veterans and first-responders can register for a free retreat or make an appointment to spend a day at the Warrior Ranch Foundation at warriorranchfoundation.org. The nonprofit welcomes donations; its annual fundraiser is planned for Oct. 1, with live music, dancing, equine performances, raffles and more; for details, visit warriorranchfoundation.org.