[UPDATE] Gunnery Sergeant Thomas McRae: Back in the Saddle Again

Posted on December 14, 2016

“Thomas McRae, his mom Carolee, who is his caregiver, and his eight-year-old daughter Aiden — along with his service dog, Vera, and his mom’s dog, Max — all came to our home on August 31,” says John Mayer, Foreman of the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program and Director of the Semper Fi Fund Apprenticeship Program.

“They came with the intention of Thomas getting back on a horse and getting comfortable in the saddle again,” John continued, “so he could be part of a Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program event at the Orme School in Arizona.”

Thomas McRae leather working
Thomas McRae riding a horse
Thomas McRae wrangling a calf
Thomas McRae wrangling cattle
Thomas McRae wrangling cattle

After Thomas and his family unpacked and got settled in, he and John got straight to work.

“We built a leather seat belt that fastened to the saddle horn and the cantle of the saddle and held him in with Velcro fasteners in order to modify the saddle for a person who wasn’t able to balance or hold on with his legs,” John explains. “Fortunately, Thomas had ridden extensively before he was injured, so he had an idea of how to shift his weight to help guide the horse by pressure applied with his hips and his stumps.”

Once they got Thomas’ saddle and seat belt ready, it was time to meet the horses. Thomas’ horse for the three days he would be staying at Smith Ranch was Tobi, an 18-year-old Overo Paint mare.

“We felt like she was gentle and well trained enough that Thomas could handle her and do well,” John explained.

Thomas saddled up and John made a few adjustments to the saddle design — “to keep him further back in the saddle and not right up on the bucking rolls, as it was physically uncomfortable for him.” They rode together for about two hours as Thomas got comfortable with his new saddle and familiarized himself once again with being on a horse.

The second day at Smith Ranch saw some additional modifications made to Thomas’ saddle: A foam-filled leather pouch was added to support Thomas’ right hip and stump. Thomas and Tobi graduated from a walk to a trot, and Thomas’ confidence increased as he became more comfortable guiding his horse with his one hand.

“We rode again in the evening for some added practice,” John said, “and to give him and the horse time to reflect on the morning’s lessons.”

On the third day at Smith Ranch, it was time for some serious riding.

“We called up the cattle in the morning and put them in the arena so Thomas could work around them and pick up the pace some,” John said. “He successfully sorted cattle out one at a time from the herd. He trotted and loped his horse from one end of the pen to the other several times, sometimes pushing cattle and sometimes not. After finishing up with the cows, Thomas was able to push the cattle out of the arena on his horse and back out into the pasture.”

After that, Thomas and John went on a trail ride through pastures and wooded areas, up and down steep grades and maneuvering around downed timber and other obstacles.

“We advanced Thomas quickly to make sure he had the confidence and know-how to handle a long event,” John said, “He had a great attitude throughout, a willingness to learn and he enjoyed not being singled out as a disabled veteran but treated like a non-handicapped person. His confidence grew noticeably and he was visibly more comfortable in the saddle as the days progressed.”

With this refresher weekend in horsemanship behind him and a new saddle design ready to go, Thomas is clearly ready to meet any challenge presented by the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program — at Orme School in Arizona, or anywhere else!

You can read about Gunnery Sergeant Thomas McRae’s journey in this hero story.

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