In 2014, Police Sgt. Greg Ziel experienced three outbursts that he couldn’t ignore.
“They were anger outbursts, and rage,” admitted Ziel, who is now retired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “One was on the job. One was to my teenaged boy. And one was to a bank teller. Those three things all happened within a two-week period and I realized that there was something I didn’t have control of.”
What Ziel—a 22-year veteran of the department—didn’t yet know was that, for 15 years, he had been experiencing increasingly telling symptoms of PTSD caused by his involvement in a 1999 officer-involved shooting. From the start, he leaned heavily into his faith, which proved helpful for years, but his anger, anxiety, stress, and sleep deprivation proved to be formidable opponents.
“My depression and everything had gotten pretty bad, to a point where my wife, Angela, was kind of afraid to go to work and leave me alone. I fell away from the church for a while. In January of 2009, my wife wanted to go back to church, and we started, but I wasn’t really keen on it or even being around church people and just that atmosphere. For the next two years I was deeply struggling and, in September of 2011, I attempted suicide.”
Ziel, a father of two, survived the attempt and doubled down on his faith, but he still had yet to recognize what was causing him to feel the way he did. When his symptoms finally led to him lashing out, he knew he needed help and, bravely, he asked for it from his own department.
“It’s extremely hard. Extremely, extremely hard,” Ziel emphasized. “Being an officer, you go into situations, and you take control and you make things peaceful and you help solve issues and problems. It’s very hard to admit that you have a problem [and] trying to deal with how you’re looked at by your peers, by your supervisors. There was no time that I wanted anybody thinking I couldn’t do the job or had to worry about me not being able to handle myself or be able to help others.
“So it’s extremely hard to finally take that step to reach out. But after doing so, all of those thoughts I had about doing that were so wrong.”
Through counseling, Ziel finally got a diagnosis and with it, the tools he needed to manage his symptoms. He medically retired from the force in 2015 and picked up work in the church and combined his two passions by serving as his department’s chaplain. In 2017, though, Ziel was challenged again when, that October, a gunman opened fire on the crowd at the Route 91 Harvest festival, killing 58 and maiming hundreds more. As chaplain, he listened to the stories of his former coworkers whose loved ones had been shot or who had been on scene and miraculously survived but didn’t know why.
“Some of the stories really had an impact on me,” Ziel said.
In response to the event, a local organization at Tranquility Ranch began offering therapeutic equine programs to first responders and Angela, an elementary school teacher and trained equine education specialist, encouraged Ziel to take part.
“I started going out there for sessions and I saw a huge difference,” Ziel said, “And if I’d miss a session, my wife could [tell]. I realized, I could go in there high-strung, high anxiety, or with anger or rage going on and, when I left, I felt totally different.”
Still, after more than two decades serving the community, there were few places left in Las Vegas that didn’t hold a memory for Ziel and the potential to trigger his anxiety. With the kids now grown, he and Angela initiated a new home search that could accommodate their now-shared love of horses, and found a perfect horse property in Aiken, South Carolina.
Ziel moved east and prepared the property as Angela finished out the 2020–2021 school year with her kids and, in that time, he began taking riding lessons with Kelsey Willis of Willis Performance Horses.
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“He does cattle sorting and he does team roping,” Ziel said of Willis. “He started asking me if I was interested in doing the roping. So just about a year ago, March of 2021, I started roping. I go out there at least once a week and I really fell in love with that sport.”
Angela, meanwhile, discovered Charlie Five—a 501(c)(3) organization founded by Marine veteran Jeremy Svejcar whose mission is to match fellow veterans and first responders who are using horses in their healing with a horse of their own at no cost. Ziel turned in an application immediately and was accepted into the program, but it became clear that, considering the fast pace at which Ziel was advancing as a horseman, he would quickly outgrow the horse initially picked for him. Because Charlie Five puts great emphasis on matching horse and rider well, the team went back to the drawing board.
Svejcar was sharing the challenge of finding an appropriate horse for Ziel with a former recipient, Jake Greenlief—also a Marine veteran and newly minted horse trainer with War Horses for Veterans. Greenlief offered up Midnight, who he’d gotten through the program in 2019. Greenlief had roped off Midnight plenty and knew the horse had enough to offer a learning opportunity for Ziel, while, if the horse remained with Greenlief, he wouldn’t get the attention he deserved while his owner focused on the horses in his string at his new job.
“That’s really what I had always envisioned Charlie Five being,” Svejcar offered. “Veterans and first responders getting a horse and then turning around and paying it forward in some way, and that’s what Jake has done. Jake didn’t have any real desire to get rid of Midnight. He just saw an opportunity for another individual to learn and gain something from Midnight because he’s a good horse.”
In January, Ziel traveled to Kansas to meet Greenlief and Midnight and spend a few days ensuring the match was a good one. In late March, at press time, Midnight was literally en route from Kansas to South Carolina.
“I’m a little bit green,” Ziel admitted, “but I think I’m going to learn a lot from him. He’s just a pretty cool horse. He’s a lot of horse and loves to go, but I got to rope the dummy several times with Midnight and, in just the couple of days [together], it started working out a little bit better between the two of us. I think it’s going to be good for both of us.”