Horses and troubled vets create bonds in Chesco

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Gary Johnson of Willingboro tends to Monarch at the Thorncroft Equestrian Center in Malvern. Johnson suffers from post traumatic stress disorder from his time serving during the Vietnam War.

Gary Johnson reached out his hand and rubbed gentle circles on the side of the chestnut gelding grazing in the grass beside him.

In his other hand, the Army veteran held the horse's rope and pieces of apple. Like a calm and concerned parent, he tried to coax Monarch into eating the fruit instead of some dirt. There was a soft smile on his lips.

As an 18-year-old in Vietnam, Johnson saw death and destruction, he said. Close friends were killed.

Since he got back from Vietnam in 1972, being in a state of high alert has been normal for him.

He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and has struggled with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts in the past, he said.

"Normally, I'd get drinks or drugs when I get stressed," Johnson, 63, said. "Being out here and being with these horses have a calming effect for me."

Johnson, who lives on the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus, is one of more than 70 veterans who have come to Thorncroft Equestrian Center in Malvern to care for and ride horses as therapy.

Thorncroft, founded in 1969, expanded its therapeutic riding program to help veterans in 2008.

This summer, however, two of the four multi-week programs for veterans faced an uncertain future after funding to Thorncroft from the Wounded Warrior Project and a 2011 grant from the Red Cross ran out.

The Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center suspended its participation in May while it reviewed how it could continue, said Kathleen Pomorski, a medical center spokeswoman.

Two weeks ago, medical center officials said the program could resume in September because they were confident the program would find funds.

About a week ago, two Thorncroft board members, George Rubin and Percival Moser, said they would supply $5,000 needed to fund six veterans per week from the Coatesville medical center through the end of 2015.

They made the donation in memory of Pete Quick, a board member who also was a Vietnam veteran.

"We're just grateful," said Sallie Dixon, director of operations at Thorncroft. "Every day is trying to find a way to raise a dollar."

The center charges $50 per lesson for veterans, Dixon said, but each lesson costs the center $63.

Thorncroft relies on donations when its riders with special needs cannot pay and hosts fund-raisers throughout the year. Not getting the money the center needs would mean cutting instructors, horses, and lessons.

Located eight miles from the high-stakes Devon Horse Show grounds, Thorncroft is open to anyone who wants lessons. Half of the roughly 350 riders in its programs each week have physical, mental, or developmental challenges.

Thorncroft's 70-acre farm has two indoor horse riding arenas, an outdoor arena, a cross-country course, and trails for riding.

Gary Graham, of Downingtown, calls being with horses "uplifting."

"When I leave here, I'm walking on a cloud," he said.

The veteran volunteers at the equestrian center now that his time in the therapy program is finished, which is not unusual.

Graham, 67, likes to talk to the horses by name as he walks by their stalls. They each have their own personalities.

Banjo is a prankster, veterans in the program said. Wyatt is friendly and cooperative. Sadie is regal. Monarch is laid back.

The horses seem to know just what the veterans need, whether it is a reassuring nuzzle or a playful shove.

Workers remember one veteran who learned to control his own anxiety by working to calm an anxious horse.

"We were all in tears," said Helen Garthwaite, the veterans program coordinator at Thorncroft.

She acknowledged this kind of therapy is not for everyone.

"For the people it will work for," she said, "it can be life-changing."

Ed Clark, 65, of Bensalem, said he is not as depressed when he is around the horses.

"They don't ask any questions," the Army veteran said. "They don't judge you."

Solomon Miller, 67, finished the program. Now he drives in every Friday from Wilmington to volunteer.

He said he feels a mutual sense of trust and respect with the horses as well as kinship. Some of the horses had to recover from injuries. Some had to retire from performing in shows. Now, the horses get a second chance, just like the veterans, he said.

Miller used to ride when he was younger, before he fought in Vietnam. When he came back, he dealt with feelings of guilt over what he was forced to do in combat.

"Being in Vietnam, you kind of lose yourself," said Miller, an Army veteran. "This program allowed me to find myself again. I learned to like myself again."

Johnson, a first-time rider, has ridden Monarch twice. It was harder than Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger made it seem when he watched them on TV as a child, he said. But he loved it.

As Johnson brought Monarch back to his stall one afternoon, the horse whinnied a few times. A board member and volunteer at the equestrian center told Johnson the sound means the horse is relaxed and likes him.

The feeling is mutual.


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond