Readers perhaps remember Greg Ziel from an article published in the May 2022 issue titled “Pay it Forward.” When that story went to press in late March, Ziel—a medically retired police sergeant from Las Vegas, Nevada—was awaiting the arrival of his new rope horse, Midnight, in South Carolina.
A Man of God
To briefly recap, 22 years of serving the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department left a traumatic mark on Ziel. Events like an officer-involved shooting and the unspeakable experiences of undercover work led to an attempted suicide by Ziel in 2011. In 2014, he fell victim to uncontrollable fits of rage that finally, and bravely, inspired him to seek the tools and help he needed from his department.
Ziel’s medical retirement followed, and he continued to serve his community through his faith as a chaplain in the department. When a deranged shooter opened fire on unassuming Las Vegas concertgoers at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival, as a chaplain, it was Ziel who provided help to his fellow first responders suffering from the impacts of that tragedy.
But even men of God are still just men. Ziel encountered numerous PTSD triggers in every Las Vegas neighborhood he visited and struggled to carry the harrowing stories of his counterparts. Then, at his wife Angela’s encouragement, Ziel found healing with horses.
Ziel’s time spent with horses provided such a dramatic improvement that he and Angela both realized they needed to capitalize on the opportunity to change course. The parents of two now-grown children bought a home in the horse-centric community of Aiken, South Carolina, and as Angela finished up her commitments as a schoolteacher in Las Vegas, Ziel prepped the new property. He also put in a call to Kelsey Willis of Willis Performance Horses in nearby Wagener.
“He searched around on Facebook and found me,” said Willis, who has a background in cutting and roping and gives lessons when he’s not on duty as a full-time paramedic. “I told him that I specialized in adult beginners with riding, but that I also teach a bunch of beginner roping lessons. He was like, ‘Well, I want to learn to ride, so I might as well try to rope.”
In a seemingly unique teaching approach that Willis has employed successfully on multiple occasions, Willis began to put Ziel through the roping and riding paces.
“We started out and we would spend half the lesson on the ground, roping the dummy, and half the lesson learning to ride. And by the time I got him to where he could trot a horse, probably two or three lessons in, I started letting him track the sled. I found that really helped his riding because it gave him something else to focus on, and he got hooked.”
Healing Through Horses
In short, Ziel is a competitor. If he’s in, he’s all in. And so it was with becoming a team roper.
As he was getting his bearings with Willis, Ziel was also in regular contact with Charlie Five—a New Mexico non-profit that has made a mission of finding horses for veterans and first responders who commit to their healing with horses.
“What would a person do if they couldn’t have a horse anymore,” asked U.S. Army veteran Jeremy Svejcar who founded Charlie Five. “Their world would fall apart because that’s been their whole world. Well, when you have someone that has no world and you give them a horse, their world gets put together.”
Svejcar speaks from experience. After coming home from Iraq, he fought a losing battle at home for 10 years until he was ready to quit fighting. With a meticulous plan to in place to hang himself, he caught glimpse of a horsemanship program just for veterans. He signed up and went all in, and it saved his life. Now, he’s doing the same for others, though there are never any guarantees.
“I’m not going to lie,” Svejcar started, “Jake and I had our reservations about Midnight and Greg.”
On the Muscle
Marine veteran Jake Greenlief was the original recipient of the black gelding through Charlie Five in 2019. When he began work training horses with War Horses for Veterans in Kansas, which aims to empower veterans and first responders through horsemanship, Midnight took a backseat to the horses in their string. As the men were visiting one day, Svejcar shared that he was looking for a horse that could foster Ziel’s goals. Greenlief threw Midnight’s name in the ring, albeit cautiously.
“I was definitely a little hesitant, knowing how quick Midnight can be” Greenlief said, particularly unsure how the horse would do as Ziel learned to rope atop him. “Also, I knew he may have only been in the box a handful of times in his entire life.
“He’s not an all-out running horse, but he’s like a cat,” Svejcar added. “But when Greg got Midnight, Jake said they just kind of clicked. I think the two of them kind of mellow each other out.”
Willis made similar observations in the arena.
“I tell Greg all the time, ‘Stop muscling it.’ Because everything he does, he’s the typical alpha male personality, so he wants to be great at it. So, he tries to slam the rope on there and I have to tell him, ‘Slow down; you’re not trying to kill it. Just relax.’”
Learning the Ropes
Making for an extra learning curve, Midnight brought a lot to the table and, by Willis’ estimation, probably was a great ranch horse, but he wasn’t a dialed-in head horse that could show Greg the ropes.
“When he finally brought him out, I said, ‘Let’s put him in the box and see what he can do,’” Willis recalled. “Midnight walked in the box and when we turned the steer out, [he] just kind of stood there.
“The good thing,” Willis continued, “was all Midnight needed was the repetition—learning to rate the steer and where to go. So, with Greg still being a relatively green rider, it was really good because we logged hours just tracking the sled and putting Midnight in position and staying there.”
Just shy of a year into their training, Willis is confident he could take Midnight to any of the local JX2 or Top Hand Productions jackpots and win some money. And he credits Greg entirely for making it so.
“Midnight has become a finished head horse with Greg at the helm,” he said.
And he proved it when they traveled to Texas in November for Charly Crawford’s American Military Celebration.
A Special Event
Over the summer, Ziel submitted an application and was accepted to Charly Crawford’s annual roping school for military and first responders. As the son of a Marine, Crawford—a 10-time NFR qualifier—designed the event in appreciation of the sacrifice made by our country’s service members. The event, which grows in popularity and production each year, features a two-day roping school for the accepted applicants. Crawford coaches the headers while the heelers take direction from 2000’s PRCA Rookie Heeler of the Year and cowboy minister Trey Johnson.
The event takes place at NRS in Decatur, Texas, and is supported by a standout board of roping, military and community leaders who also recruit ambassadors to assist participants. After the roping school, the competition heats up and roping school grads can enter a Horns N Heroes pro-am, which pairs them with the PRCA’s top 15 headers and heelers ahead of the NFR.
Ziel had the hard-and-fast goal of training up for the event in his sights when Midnight produced an abscess in August and then again in September.
“I was extremely scared that Midnight would not be ready,” Ziel said, sharing that Midnight was out of commission for about six weeks.
Willis wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass, though, and mounted Ziel out on one of his horses, just in case.
“So again, [he was] helping me with my horsemanship—with switching horses and having to adapt and change and do some different things,” Ziel explained. “I trust very heavily on God and my faith and I was praying. I was just praying. Me and Midnight have been on this journey … I really wanted to take Midnight.”
Ziel’s prayers were answered and Midnight was given the all-clear in October, mere weeks before the AMC. He trained up and loaded up for the 17-hour haul to Texas, where the scene looked a little different from the outdoor arena in South Carolina.
“I knew Midnight would be fine as far as being able to carry [Greg] and handle the load of roping steers and stuff like that, but I didn’t know how he was going to do in an indoor pen with all that going on” Willis admitted.
Ziel arrived in Texas a day early and introduced Midnight to the setting.
“We worked on the box because everything looked different to him and he wasn’t so sure about entering the box,” Ziel said.
When it was go-time the next day, Midnight was ready.
“He’s a stud,” Ziel offered. “He really is.”
“I think he was probably the MVP of the whole thing just because of his [lack of] experience. He was able to go and do and shine in that situation.”
“I started roping at almost 50,” Ziel explained. “So, I’m 51. I told my wife, ‘I definitely want to improve, want to compete, want to get better and go out and do. I’m never going to make the NFR [and] I don’t care about the money. My biggest goal is I want to win a buckle.’”
Ziel showed up at the roping school with the same drive he has for his healing, his horse, his horsemanship and his faith.
“Greg went at it 100%,” Svejcar said, who traveled to Texas to support Ziel. “He went there with purpose.”
For his efforts, Ziel was awarded an AMC Most Improved Header buckle. It’s a prized possession … as is the second buckle he was awarded that week, presented by Svejcar and Greenlief, on behalf of Charlie Five.
Typically, Charlie Five awards their buckles when their recipients complete a successful year with their horse.
“Jeremy and the board from Charlie Five felt that I have [excelled] with Midnight,” Ziel explained. “We’ve been working so hard to get to this and compete and just grow that they felt I deserved the buckle at this point.”
Ziel’s buckles are certainly prized, but they’re not all he was awarded in Texas.
More than a Clinic
After the roping school, Ziel was entering the pro-am but, since it was his first-ever competition, needed a roping handicap classification. The woman taking entries pointed across the way to Crawford to assign a number to Ziel.
“He gave me recognition right there,” Ziel stated. “He goes, ‘Hey, you got that buckle on? Show this lady your buckle.’
“It was just cool,” Ziel continued. “Charly cares and has a heart to give back and show appreciation for first responders and military. Everybody there: the ambassadors, the board, the staff members; the stuff they put on is so much more than a clinic.”
For Ziel, the camaraderie and fellowship he found at AMC was more than he’d ever expected.
“We all made some good friends,” he said. “People just stepped up. Even other competitors. I had three or four guys throughout the whole thing that would be like, ‘Hey … I saw you pulling left when you roped,’ and just giving pointers and helping.”
READ: Team Ropers Who Served
It was that level of support that convinced Ziel to enter the pro-am at all. In truth, the idea of pairing up with an NFR qualifier in his first competition had Ziel a little boogered. Svejcar also offered some helpful perspective.
“He had reservations,” Svejcar explained, “and it’s like, ‘Dude, you drove all the way out here from Aiken, South Carolina. When are you ever going to get the chance to rope with a pro like that—a guy that’s going to the NFR?
When Ziel gave voice to his fear—“What if I miss?”—Svejcar was ready.
“What if you catch?”
Ultimately, Ziel didn’t catch, but he did nod for his steer and his partner, two-time NFR heeler Levi Lord.
Lord, as it turns out, heralds the occasion.
“It’s an awesome event,” he said. “Them guys, they fight a whole different battle than any of us even know about. It’s pretty cool to be able to go be a part of their day. I think it makes their day, but they don’t know it makes ours, too.”
Back to Work
While Ziel was still riding high from all he and Midnight accomplished in their short time together, he was also struggling with the news that someone from his old department had been killed in the line of duty. In a matter of days following their return home, Midnight answered the call for healing.
“Midnight’s been amazing,” Ziel said. “He eases my mind and [it] helps. The healing is a big thing. The roping is a healing thing, too. I’ve been competitive all my life and to have something to strive for to get better at and continue through … And working with [Midnight] as my partner, it helps as well. It’s been life changing. Receiving Midnight and everything that keeps happening along the way. It is just blessing after blessing.”
Equipped with his own giving heart, Ziel is also ready to answer the call for healing.
“Going back to my faith, it’s God stepping in and helping me recover, and now I’m supposed to find ways to end up helping others. I think we’re all supposed to find our way to give back and help others.” TRJ