Healing for Veterans, a Refuge for Racehorses

The following is an article from BloodHorse

Photo: Courtesy Down the Stretch Ranch Richard Monaco, a Vietnam War veteran, rides retired Thoroughbred Gal Has to Like it just outside Down the Stretch Ranch in Creston, Wash.
Photo: Courtesy Down the Stretch Ranch
Richard Monaco, a Vietnam War veteran, rides retired Thoroughbred Gal Has to Like it just outside Down the Stretch Ranch in Creston, Wash.

Mark Moran found himself in the Del Mar paddock for the first time on the second weekend of November—cane, wooden leg, eye patch, and all. It was on his bucket list.

The trip south from his home in Washington state was a gift of sorts from his cousin, Boone McCanna.

Moran, 66, is riddled with cancer—untreatable adenoid cystic carcinoma—but he’s not overly concerned.

“I’m going to live until I die,” Moran says. “I should have died in Vietnam, and I’ve had 47 years since then, had a family—six grandkids—and I’m grateful every day.”

Those 47 years have been bearable, at least in part, because of horses. After an explosion took his leg in Vietnam in 1969, nothing helped quite like grooming and hotwalking Thoroughbreds for his uncle and Boone’s father, trainer Dan McCanna, at Playfair Race Course in Spokane, Wash. There were no more thoughts of the horrors of war, just the horses.

“You build trust with those horses,” Moran says. “They all have their personalities and if you treat them good, they treat you good. It takes a lot of worry out of your mind. It’s hard to put into words. It helped me calm my brain, to just feel like I was connected to something.

“If you’re working, you have dignity in this life. Grooming and mucking stalls—some people might look down on that, but it gave me dignity.”

Moran isn’t just Boone’s cousin.

“He’s always been my inspiration,” Boone says. “He was (6-foot-3)—just a stud—and he gets blown up over there. His whole body is a scar. I got to play college football and he never did, but he never complained about anything. Not one complaint.”

No complaints, but there was pain. Still Boone, now 52, saw it first-hand decades ago—the impact horses had on his cousin.

“The horses were magic to him,” Boone says of Moran’s struggles with post traumatic stress disorder, a plague upon veterans old and young to this day.

That experience, watching his cousin change with equine aura, provided the spark. If it worked for Moran, it could work for others. Years later, that spark has blossomed into a reality—Down the Stretch Ranch.

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There’s always physical work to be done on the 220-acre spread in Creston, Wash., about an hour drive west of Spokane, but the real progress comes during the weekends.

Down the Stretch Ranch isn’t just a home for retired racehorses. Like a coupled entry, horses and veterans are 1 and 1A.

Boone got Richard Monaco up on Gal Has to Like It and couldn’t wipe the smile off the former B-52 Bomber crew chief, who served three tours during the Vietnam War.

“When I put him on that horse, everything just changed about him,” Boone says. “He didn’t know how to ride. I probably shouldn’t have done it. I’d been riding (Gal Has to Like It) for only six weeks, but I shoved him up there.”

When Monaco got off the stakes-placed gelding who earned $212,546 during his 29-race career, after trouncing through neighboring acres of wheat stubble surrounding Down the Stretch, the veteran was elated.

“If you could bottle the way I feel right now, I wouldn’t have to take the drugs from the VA,” Monaco says.

Monaco has been through his share of physical trials. By his count he’s had open-heart surgery, underwent operations to repair his shoulder and wrist, and even sustained a stroke, but all that seems to drift away when he’s out with the horses.

“It takes your mind away from your pain and your problems. It cleanses your mind,” Monaco says. “Meds cover up everybody’s pain, but you can hug a horse. I’m not a therapist, but the horses are.”

Monaco has turned into a recruiter of sorts for Boone’s brainchild, passing out fliers and spreading the word at the local Veterans Affairs hospital. He brings in the veterans—like retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Buecher and his wife Jen (an Army Captain), who also brought their 13-year-old son with cerebral palsy—and Boone teaches them horsemanship.

“I finally found my niche again,” Monaco says. “There’s a lot of veterans who are alone, divorced, with health problems or homeless problems. You just see the sadness every day with them at the VA. This gives me a purpose.”

For each new guest at the ranch, before any riding starts, the process begins in a round pen. Boone lets a horse run around for a while until it is comfortable with the guest.

“They’ll stop to look at you and then put their head on your shoulder,” Boone says. “It’s all about trust.”

Boone needed a bit of therapy himself in April of 2015. In the same month, his mother died and Dennis Carr, the jockey he represented as an agent, suffered a severe head injury at Golden Gate Fields when one of his mounts reared wildly in the starting gate. Carr was thrown from the back of the gate and CT scans later revealed bleeding around his brain.

“All signs were pointing to home. I’ve gotta get out of California and start this thing,” says Boone, a Spokane native who played college football at the University of Idaho. “It really was some good therapy for me, too. Digging ditches does a lot for you.

“I’m still hustling. I’m not an agent, but I’m still hustling.”

Boone makes sure to tell each horse’s story. If a veteran comes to Down the Stretch Ranch, race replays from the past are part of getting to know the selected runner. Exit Stage Left, Roving Storm, Poker Brad, Nakiska, Warrens Wild Thing, Sandor, Trumpet Player Jay, Presenceofagenius—they all have a story.

It’s not happenstance that a connection is so often made between Thoroughbred and human. There is a parallel between the horses and the veterans.

“These horses are highly trained, great athletes, just like these guys, who are highly trained, specialized soldiers,” Boone says.

It’s almost cliché to say during turnouts or after retirement Thoroughbreds “learn to be a horse again,” but the sentiment is not off-base.

“Once these horses get out here, it takes them 6 to 8 months to get their breath and realize the pressure is off,” Boone says of the high-stress environment Thoroughbreds in training face on a daily basis. “They’re always asked to go. It has to put a pressure on them. You can see it in their eyes.

“Then, they become horses again. When you turn the pressure off—it really takes six months.”

Tim McCanna—Boone’s brother and a trainer with more than 2,000 wins—along with his wife Jan, provide a buffer for the retired horses at their farm in Yakima, Wash., before they’re moved to the ranch. Once they arrive at Down the Stretch, the retirees eventually assimilate to the herd, now around 25 in number, and break into hierarchical roles.

“I look out there and they establish their pecking order,” Boone says. “Every one in the field has made (thousands of dollars), but the pecking order is the highest earner all the way down. It blows me away.”

With time, the horses who have learned to become horses again provide that unique lesson to their human cohorts.

“They’re just like the veterans,” Monaco says, “who just need to learn how to be a person again.”

The work done to help veterans at Down the Stretch Ranch isn’t a hobby, or something to take up Boone and Dan McCanna’s time. Dan, Boone’s father, is the horseman of horsemen at ranch, often using his 60 years of experience to spot small injuries in the Thoroughbreds from as far as a quarter-mile away.

But it’s all for a common goal.

A recent study found, on average, 20 veterans commit suicide each day.

That fact inspired Boone to reach out to Jerry Hollendorfer. As a jockey agent in Washington and eventually in Northern California, Boone always had a good relationship with the Hall of Fame trainer, and once Boone retired to start Down the Stretch, Hollendorfer dove right in. Boone said Hollendorfer supplies much of the financial support for the ranch, along with close to half of the horses.

“The biggest part of the idea was (from) Boone, and I was just happy to be part of a good idea,” said Hollendorfer, who, along with his wife Janet, founded Down the Stretch with Boone. “We all have a connection to veterans. If I can give something back to the horses and to the people who fight for me to walk around here, then I’m happy to do that. These people go out there and put their lives on the line for me, and I’m astounded people do that.”

Moran, Boone’s cousin, calls those lost to suicide “the forgotten soldiers.”

“That’s what I think about,” Moran says. “That’s what we’re working for. We want to save them all, but if we save one, we’re doing good.

“When I got wounded and lost my leg, and a lot of my other leg, all I had to do was look at the hospital bed next to me. I’m all right. It’s not that bad, because look at that guy. Now, how can I help him?

“I never thought I was disabled. That’s the mindset I want to give these veterans. You’re not disabled. You went through these traumas and you survived it. You’re going to have these flashbacks and these dreams, and you’re going to live on.”

The quest to find more veterans who need help isn’t an easy one, but by word of mouth and through other channels, momentum is building.

“At one point, I was thinking ‘The guys coming out—they don’t seem like they’re that bad,'” Boone says, recalling a conversation he had with retired Col. Greg Allen.

“He told me, ‘It’s the guys that don’t come out that you need to get.’ I want to save a kid from hurting himself and give him some hope, and these horses seem to do it.”