Photograph courtesy the Brant family
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Gulf War veteran Bryan Brant with two members of the Herd—Abbey the horse and Jack the mule—on a transcontinental ride.

Photograph courtesy the Brant family

Disabled Vet’s Epic Horseback Rides Inspired Thousands

Bryan Brant’s adventures across North America with “the Herd” raised awareness about neglected horses, Native American culture, and veterans’ health.

Bryan Brant, a disabled veteran with American Indian roots, spent the last few years of his life on a transcontinental adventure via horseback, riding thousands of miles in a quest to learn more about his family’s history. Yet what started as a personal pilgrimage of discovery and healing evolved into a greater message he hoped to spread to the public.

“It’s about the horses,” Brant told National Geographic earlier this year.

Brant, who suffered from Gulf War Illness that left him temporarily in a wheelchair, made epic journeys by horseback starting in June 2012. He passed away in late September 2016 at the age of 44, after a battle with cancer that recently slowed his travels. But he had hoped his advocacy for protection of horses and his wandering spirit would live on.

Brant made his long treks with a team that he referred to as the Herd: a horse named Abbey Road, a mule named Sergeant Major Jack Houdini, and his Australian Shepherd Pepper. He hoped his long expeditions would not only raise awareness about problems affecting horses, but also promote hippotherapy, or equine therapy, for disabled veterans.

“There truly is something deeply healing when it comes to a horse and I hope other veterans someday will be able to experience this,” Brant wrote on Facebook, where he posted regularly from his travels, attracting attention from thousands of admirers.

Native Roots

Originally from Kansas, Brant said he was related to the Mohawk, one of the five founding members of the Iroquois Nation, through Chief Joseph Brant, a distant relative and top British military officer during the American Revolution.

“[Learning about my family’s history] was something I wanted to do my whole life, even more so after being on the Longest Walk ... across the country,” Brant said of the 2008 cross-country trek that he and hundreds of other American Indians—including extended family he was meeting for the first time—took to raise awareness about issues facing indigenous people.

Eager to forge a deeper connection with his heritage, Brant formulated a plan in 2009 to follow the route taken by Chief Joseph Brant and his Native American ancestors to the Mohawk Nation, near the U.S.-Canada border at Akwesasne. Brant decided to travel by horseback, both to mimic the chief’s mode of transportation and to “stay out of a wheelchair,” he told National Geographic.

“Back in 2002 to 2007, I was in a wheelchair, and the doctors told me I would never walk again,” Brant said in a radio interview with WHAM 1180 in 2013.

Brant, who served as a medic during the first Gulf War, said he suffered from Gulf War Illness, a poorly understood affliction that he said includes a “laundry list of issues” such as fatigue, stress, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory or cardiovascular problems. In Brant’s case he also suffered from fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis.

When conventional treatments failed to improve his health, Brant turned to alternative forms of therapy, including equine therapy.

Brant said he grew up with horses, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he started looking into purchasing his own. He was shocked to find out that prices for the animals had plummeted over just a few months, from thousands of dollars to just a few hundred per horse. Ultimately, he paid $300 for his horse Abbey and his mule Jack. He eventually learned that a weak economy, drought, and high prices for hay had beaten down the market—with sometimes tragic results for the animals.

“I heard stories of people taking their horses to a state park with all their gear on with a sign that says ‘free horse,’” Brant said. “I would find out along the way that it was a much bigger issue than it was in the beginning.”

Hitting the Road

On June 12, 2012, Brant and the Herd set out for what he called “his first day of freedom.” Their travels took them from Illinois along the Mississippi River into Kentucky, then up through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, where they arrived in the Big Apple just before Thanksgiving. They waited out the winter in the Empire State until they could continue on to the Mohawk Reservation in Canada.

The Herd averaged about 10 to 15 miles per day. Brant carried a tent and some food. He ate his fair share of granola bars and beef jerky, and cooked oatmeal on a small camp stove, but he also stopped for warm meals and to buy feed for the animals in towns. He often camped in state parks, and was touched by the people he met along the way who opened their homes and hearts to him and his gang.

Brant’s parents estimate that the journey to Canada took nearly a year and a half. After he finished that trek in Quebec, he was again inspired, this time by Charles Goodnight, a pioneering cattle rancher of the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So, Brant and the Herd traveled through Arkansas and Texas and down to Terlingua, Mexico, retracing Goodnight’s steps for another year and a half of exploration.

But Brant didn’t pack up his saddle south of the border. His adventurous spirit propelled him on yet another transcontinental adventure, until his health concerns started to take the reins in late 2015.

Brant hoped his treks would introduce people to the healing power of horses and remind them of the pivotal role horses played in our country’s past. The animals need, and deserve, more respect and better treatment, he said.

“By riding [horseback], it puts you in a new mind-set from what I come to describe as the difference between real world and ‘wheel world’ and how they are juxtaposed together,” Brant said.

Brant hoped that his ride would motivate people zipping by him in their cars to stop, slow down, and remember to savor life. His parents say that he would often encourage others to “enjoy creation and enjoy the beauty of this country.”

“Horses have taught me more than [is] imaginable,” Brant wrote in a post. “I have learned history, navigation, philosophy, medicine, freedom, endurance, patience, and faith being out with my herd.”