Lander Equestrian Center

Lander’s Equestrian Center sits along S.C. Highway 72.

In March 2017, something special happened at Lander University’s equestrian center.

A small group of veterans from across the state, all diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, spent three days taking part in an equine therapy program led by “Cowboy P.I.” Jeffrey Patterson, a private investigator and horse specialist from Clinton, Montana.

From his Willowbend Farm, Patterson runs Herd2Human, an “equine-assisted psychotherapy” regimen that’s offered free to veterans.

About 13 percent of Lander’s 3,100 students are veterans, active duty military or relatives of a service member, so offering the program full time seemed to perfectly align with the school’s mission.

“We’ve been ranked in the top 15 in the country by several organizations in how good we are with veterans and everything we do, we consider veterans and make an attempt to make as best an environment as we can,” said Chris Giles, Lander’s director of military and veterans services.

Each year since 2015, the General Assembly has given Lander $300,000 to support equestrian center operations. But with the Herd2Human experiment showing promise, lawmakers in the 2017-18 fiscal year agreed to allocate $500,000 to Lander — with the extra $200,000 to assist in the development of a PTSD equine therapy program.

But within a few months, things began to fall apart.

“We were basically operating off the promise that it was coming, but promises don’t buy anything,” Adam Taylor, chief of staff and vice president for governmental relations, said. “We had everything lined up to do in a proper manner and unfortunately, the money got pulled.”

The funding year began July 1, 2017, but Lander officials said they didn’t receive funding for the equestrian operations until October, when the school issued a nationwide request for proposals for the creation of PTSD therapy program.

Andy Benoit, Lander’s vice president for enrollment and access, said just response came back: A $350,000 proposal from Patterson. Since the price tag exceeded the available funding, officials rejected the bid and turned to a consultant who advised Lander officials the program could be successful within the $200,000 range.

Taylor said Lander drafted job descriptions for two full-time positions and a clinician and began accepting applications in early 2018. That’s when school leaders were told the funds earmarked for the equestrian center — all $500,000 — was transferred to the state’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Taylor said that’s forced administrators to look for funding within Lander’s budget to support equestrian center operations — not even considering the PTSD therapy element.

“We’re going through that right now in building our budget for this fiscal year, and it’s really not pleasant. We’ve got a dilemma on our hands,” Taylor said.

Taylor, Benoit, Giles and Megan Varner Price, Lander’s assistant vice president of university relations, met with the Index-Journal last month to review the equestrian center’s financial status. That session came in the wake of a news story published by The Nerve, a news service launched in 2010 by the South Carolina Policy Council. The Index-Journal shares stories by The Nerve on its website and posted a link to this story on social media.

On May 9, The Nerve published a second story with the headline: “Tax money mean for veterans’ care spent on university bus, new furniture.” Both were written by Rick Brundrett, The Nerve’s editor.

Benoit confirmed to the Index-Journal that a $56,837 shuttle bus was purchased in anticipation of the PTSD equine therapy program. Although the sessions were to be held at the equestrian center, classroom elements and other aspects of it were going to be housed inside Lander’s Legion Hall on Calhoun Avenue, 5 ½ miles from the site.

In a Wednesday news release, Price called elements of The Nerve’s reporting untrue.

“The university provided detailed information and documentation in response to questions from the article’s author,” Price said. “Unfortunately, we feel the resulting story misrepresented Lander in this situation, and insinuated that Lander misdirected funds appropriated for this program. This is entirely untrue, and to suggest that Lander would do anything to undermine veterans is, quite frankly, offensive.”

Linda Dolny, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, said the university fully backed efforts to bring the PTSD program on campus.

“It was certainly disappointing news. Lander is committed to serving our veterans and military families, and we felt the program was a good fit for our community and university.”

Taylor said inaccuracies in The Nerve’s stories rankled him.

“It just makes me very upset when people are throwing barbs at this and tarnishing Lander University and its veterans at a time when we’re one of the best schools there is for veterans, it really bothers me,” he said.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.