The next step: Clovis horse therapy ranch looks to make a special place for veterans

Farm Forum

FRESNO, Calif. — Walking down a creaking staircase in an old Fresno, Calif., farmhouse last month, Guy Adams with The Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch looks past the dust and debris to see what he hopes the place will one day become: a home for veterans.

The place needs a lot of work. Turning this boarded-up, turn-of-the-century house into a livable space would require gutting the interior and fitting the two-story structure with new plumbing and electrical lines.

But Adams, executive director of the nonprofit horse ranch in Clovis, Calif., that primarily serves children with disabilities and veterans, isn’t the only person who believes six dilapidated bedrooms can become an oasis for veterans seeking healing and a new start.

The Clovis Veterans Memorial District donated $10,000 to help renovate the farmhouse located within a vineyard in east-central Fresno that is owned by E.&J. Gallo Winery. Bob Gallo committed to doubling the donations that come in, and leasing the building for $1 a year. Total, around $13,000 of a $250,000 minimum goal has been raised.

Adams would continue to operate his 20-acre Clovis horse ranch off Highway 168 while also providing the home and mental health facility for up to 10 veterans.

Gallo offered the building during a conversation with a board member of the nonprofit. Gallo isn’t sure of the origins of the old house, but says it was likely built by an affluent person because of its size and style. Another farmer told Adams the property where the house is located was once used as a dairy farm.

Adams says veterans would be allowed to live in the home as they heal from the wounds of war, along with being provided an internship in the agriculture industry.

Supporting veterans is personal for Adams.

His son, Andrew Adams, served in Iraq in the Air National Guard and was a two-time Airman of the Year, and one of his son’s best friends, Clovis High School graduate Steven Packer, was killed by an improvised explosive device during his fourth tour in Iraq.

“After seeing what these young men and women are going through coming back from war, it broke my heart,” Adams says. “A lot of them can get help but they don’t want to go after it. They are afraid of being labeled.”

Clovis veteran Roger Plemons, 55, is among those who has benefited from The Heart of the Horse.

Plemons served in the Air Force for 29 years as a loadmaster for C-17 military transport aircraft and made an estimated 100 trips to and from Iraq and Afghanistan over nearly seven years. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and, in 2009, with leukemia, which he has since beaten.

The 22 horses at The Heart of the Horse, the majority donated, act like a “life preserver” for Plemons. His favorite, Bandit, makes him feel especially comfortable and at ease.

“At times, PTSD can feel like you’re drowning,” Plemons says. “You’re out in the middle of this lake and sometimes you feel like it’s hard to keep your head above water. And come out around the horses … it reminds you that you are not alone, so you feel like you can make it. It’s a lot better than turning to other things to try and forget the pain, you know.”

Adams works one-on-one with veterans and considers them volunteers, not patients.

“We have the veterans center in Fresno and the VA hospital but we have so many veterans that don’t want to go to those places, they don’t want to be labeled,” Adams says. “So when they come out to The Heart of the Horse, they are able to figure out if they really do have an issue. And if they really do, we can get them into one of those programs. Let us be the catalyst, the stepping stone, that gets them into a better frame of mind — mentally, physically and spiritually.”

The horse ranch became that kind of stepping stone for Plemons.

“When I first moved here and found out about these guys, I had been in counseling up in Tacoma but I had quit. But being involved (at the horse ranch) and being ‘just a volunteer,’ it lowers your defenses. … So that helped me to get back into counseling at the Fresno vet center and I got into a class there.”

If the veterans home becomes a reality, the plan is that volunteer counselors and therapists would also visit, and Adams would bring horses over for the veterans during the day.

Adams says nearly all donations to the nonprofit currently pay for alfalfa for horses and veterinarian bills.

“I don’t make a dime. I live on the property and my wife is the only paid employee. … She brings home $1,403 (a month) and that’s what we live off of.”

Still, Adams hopes he can give even more.

“These veterans have gone off and given of themselves selflessly. They’re giving men and women who are put in harm’s way and then they come back and struggle.”

Plemons says a new veterans home through The Heart of the Horse would offer a lot of “hope.”

“When you leave the military you leave that — not to go corny or nothing — but there’s literally a band of brothers. You’ve got that camaraderie, that sense that someone has got your back. Well, this is re-establishing that, building friendships, everybody supporting one other … finding out there is life after the military.”