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Horses help heal struggling military vets at Shamrock Reins in Bucks County

Janet L. Brennan, 57, a registered nurse and daughter of a Vietnam veteran, created her dream of an equine therapy farm to help military veterans and first responders.

Shannon Revit, 49, a nurse practitioner from Warrington, with therapy horse Ebony.
Shannon Revit, 49, a nurse practitioner from Warrington, with therapy horse Ebony.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Shannon Revit, a Delaware Air National Guard captain, was walking with her favorite horse, Ebony, when she glanced up at the hills in Pipersville, Bucks County, and had a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback.

"It's like storm clouds rolling in," said Revit, at Shamrock Reins, an equine-assisted therapy farm for military personnel and first responders. The nurse practitioner from Warrington Township said the Pipersville terrain reminded her of a life-threatening incident she'd experienced in 2015 while on a humanitarian mission with the Air Force in a mountainous region of southern Ethiopia.

"You feel like your mind starts to cloud up," she said. "Suddenly, everything rolls back and you're not here. I was back in Ethiopia. I panicked. I turned my back on the hills to try to get myself together and, without realizing it, I  started walking away from Ebony."

The black quarter horse that Revit grooms and exercises during her weekly therapy sessions stopped grazing and stood still.

Vera Dragunas, an advanced certified therapeutic riding instructor, was working nearby with another client. She rushed across the pasture and led Ebony close to Revit, who immediately reached out and touched the horse.

"I could smell Ebony, feel her warmth, feel her breathing," Revit said. "It was like she was saying, 'Hug me. I'm going to bring you back to normal.' I hugged her and I thought, 'I'm here in Pipersville and I'm safe.' "

Ebony is one of 13 horses at the 23-acre Shamrock Reins, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Janet L. Brennan, 57, a registered nurse who had a 20-year career as a pharmaceutical biotechnology executive before her road-trip epiphany.

She was driving home from West Virginia in 1997 with her first horse — Irish, the fulfillment of a longtime dream — when, suddenly, "I knew exactly what I wanted to do, what I'm supposed to do," she said.

"My dad's a Vietnam vet. I'm a nurse. It's a calling. All these thoughts started popping into my head, thoughts about having a herd of horses and a therapeutic facility when I retired."

Brennan reenacted the revelatory moment by looking up at the heavens. "I said, 'That's what you want me to do?  Really? OK.' "

It took her seven years to get the farm, transform it into the pristine pastures and barn it is today, and assemble the heart of her venture: the deeply empathic horses, including Irish, now 26, and Irish's offspring, Dublin, Shamrock, and Clancy.

Brennan does not refer to them as "therapy horses," although therapy is clearly what they provide.

"You don't have to train a horse to be a therapy horse and mirror somebody's emotions," Brennan said. "Horses are prey animals, so their nature is to mirror our emotions. They're reading you, so if you're nervous or scared, they think, 'I should be scared, too.' The horse calms down when the participant calms down, and that's when the participant has that lightbulb moment."

After Revit allowed Ebony to bring her back from the terrifying Ethiopia flashback to the calm present at Shamrock Reins, Brennan said, "It only took a minute with the horse for Shannon to calm down.  Working with these horses has saved her life."

Revit agreed. In fall 2015, she was sent to Ethiopia to help provide medical support while the Air Force was shutting down a drone base that had been running counterterrorism missions against Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia. Revit felt local attitudes toward American military personnel in Ethiopia varied. She felt unsafe.

She was sitting in a recreation room one day, watching a soccer game on TV, when she sensed motion on her right side. A local security guard quietly walked in and stood behind her.

"He had his AK-47 down around his belly," Revit said, "and he just tilted it up so it was pointed at the back of my head. I could hear him breathing.

"Everyone says your life flashes before your eyes, but it didn't. I wondered: Would my mother get my body back or would it just lay out there somewhere? That's all I was worried about."

Revit didn't move. "He wanted me to give him a reason to shoot me," she said. "When he realized that I wasn't going to, he slowly lowered the weapon, sneered at me, turned, and left."

But in a very real sense, he never left Revit, even after she left Ethiopia in December 2015 and returned to civilian life as a nurse practitioner. "To this day, if something flashes on my right side, it almost always causes flashbacks and an anxiety attack," Revit said.

"I was so healthy before this happened," she said. "Tough as nails. Afterward, I cried a lot, very anxious, very suicidal. You cry all the way to work and you cry all the way home. You cry all night. I made myself not go to sleep because the nightmares were so horrific. I thought it was hopeless."

Revit's sister found out about Shamrock Reins and took her there. "First day," Revit said, "I'm standing in the doorway, saying, 'I am not a horse person. This is not the place for me.' "

Instead of asking Revit about her military service and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Brennan traded nurse practitioner stories with her. "She brings out some homemade soup like a mother would," Revit said. "Now, she's got me hooked. Then, they start bringing out the horses."

In the first three years of Shamrock Reins, Brennan's horses have helped 120 military personnel, first responders, and family members.

Her annual operating budget is $175,000 because she works free and her small paid staff is supported by 100 volunteers — mostly military veterans and first responders — who believe in her mission and who do everything from maintenance and repairs to mowing pastures.

Three licensed professional therapists donate their services. The Rotary Club of Central Bucks built a $15,000 mounting ramp as a service project so people in wheelchairs can safely mount the horses. Lemus Construction in Furlong and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3258 in Chalfont put new roofs on the run-in sheds in the pastures.

Still, despite both monetary and in-kind donations, Brennan pays some necessary expenses herself while hoping word-of-mouth attracts financial support for Shamrock Reins.

Most of Brennan's horses are quarter horse mares, except for Gus, a 2,000-pound Belgian draft horse, six feet tall at the shoulders — and then there's the massive neck and head.

"He's a wonderful, gentle giant," said Dragunas, the therapeutic riding instructor. "He's got a big personality because he's a big guy. He's our Fabio."

Standing in the barn's center aisle was Ed Gilliard, a Vietnam War combat veteran from Elkins Park who was wounded in the neck and both legs by shrapnel from a "Bouncing Betty" antipersonnel mine. "When I first met Gus, he beat me up. He slobbered all over me. He stepped on my foot. Ain't that right, boy?"  Gilliard said as he brushed Gus vigorously.

Gus did not deny it. "Him beating me up didn't mean nothing," Gilliard said. "Gus takes me out of my negative zone. I forget about all the stress when I work with him. He feels like I feel. He gets me to relax."

Gilliard addressed Gus directly. "You're all right, man," he said soothingly. "That's my boy."

Kathryn Brown, a Shamrock Reins instructor-in-training who works with Gilliard, leaned over to Gus and kissed him on the nose. "Gus is a ladies' man," Gilliard said, smiling. "Yes, he is."