Quintessential people

Quintessential People: Paddy McKevitt

by Judy Masterson | Photography by thomas balsamo


When BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center went looking for a deeper connection between horse and human, it found a channel and a champion in Patrick “Paddy” McKevitt.

“There’s something in a horse that’s very deep,” McKevitt said. “They’ve carried us into war. They’ve pulled wagons to build cities, build roads, essentially helped develop civilization. They’re used for our recreation—jumping and racing. But I believe that a horse’s real purpose on this earth is to heal people.”

It was a horse that healed McKevitt. Years ago, alone and nearly ruined body and soul by an addiction to alcohol, his first marriage failing, he clung to the thought of a skittish quarter horse named Wyatt.

“When I was lying there not knowing how I was going to live, the only thing that made me want to get up in the morning and carry on with my life was that I knew Wyatt was really troubled and that I wanted to work with him and make him feel better,” McKevitt said.

Wyatt helped McKevitt “get back to living.” He taught him, as no horse ever had – and perhaps because McKevitt was now finally ready to learn the lesson – how to watch, how to listen, and how to earn trust and keep it.
Before “the booze” took McKevitt away from horses, they galloped through his life, carried him to new places, fueled his ambition, and brought him joy.

Born a week before St. Patrick’s Day, McKevitt loved horses as a boy growing up in Northern Ireland. He was five when his father was killed in a car crash, leaving his mother to raise five children. At age 10, he was mucking stalls and riding at a stable owned by a family that ran a bookmaking business. He longed for his own horse, but lacked the money to buy one. An uncle gave him a baby white donkey that McKevitt dubbed Snowy and raced in local donkey derbies.

It was difficult growing up Catholic at the height of “the troubles” in Newry, a city halfway between Dublin and Belfast. Ten times a day the teenaged McKevitt was stopped and searched by British security forces. There was no work. At 21, he arrived in New York City in search of a summer job and quickly found three, with a tree service, as a limousine driver, and a fine carpet installer for private residences and luxury hotels.

I could not believe you could just go wherever you wanted and do whatever you wanted,” McKevitt said. “The opportunity for work was just incredible.”

He stayed in New York and in his spare time he rode horses at Spring Vale Farms 16 miles outside of the city. In the late 1980s, he followed Mary Donner, the farm’s owner and head trainer, to Southern Pines, N.C., where he lived on a steeple chase farm, galloped race horses, and continued installing carpet.

“I worked because I had to,” he said. “But horses were taking over.”

McKevitt continued to follow his heart—and horses. In Rochelle, Va., he apprenticed under master farrier Edgar Watson. He started a horseshoeing business and shod top-level competition horses in three-day eventing. He traveled to England in 1992 as a farrier for the United States Olympic training team’s three-day event horses. Olympic equestrian J. Michael Plumb asked him to stay out the summer to care for Adonis, a Dutch Warmblood Plumb rode in the Olympics that year in Barcelona.

“It was an opportunity to be around some amazing horses,” recalled McKevitt, who exercised the beautiful Adonis on a lush farm owned by the American equestrienne Sandy Pflueger, who five years later married horseman and equestrian trainer Capt. Mark Phillips, former husband of Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Back in Virginia, McKevitt continued shoeing and galloping top horses and indulging his passion for thoroughbreds. Tony Leahy, master and huntsman of the Fox River Valley Hunt, recruited him to the Barrington area in 1995.

“I was just growing as I went along,” McKevitt said. “Every cool new experience led me. The horses called me. When I was around them, I felt at ease.”

When BraveHearts beckoned, McKevitt, who lost his twin brother to drink in 1992, had faced down his demons and was living sober. He had learned natural horsemanship, which relies on equine instincts and communication, and was using the method at his Moon Dance Ranch to bring difficult horses in sync with their owners. He was also enjoying the support of a new family, including wife Alisha, and step-sons Carson and Christian, now 15 and 18.

At BraveHearts, both the wild Mustang and the broken warrior find freedom in a complete and utter absorption.

“Horses absolutely live in the moment,” McKevitt said. “They have no other agenda. They’re prey animals. If they feel fear, if you threaten them, they’re going to flee or try to flee. If you can read them getting bothered or troubled by what you’re doing or about to do, if you can just back off that pressure and maybe adjust it, come at it a different way so that the horse isn’t as fearful, you’ll have a positive outcome every time.”

United States military veterans, despite their brokenness, often seek a challenge. Like the horse, they thrive on adrenalin.

“They don’t want to be put on a horse and led around on a lead rope and be told that they are getting therapy,” McKevitt said. “The horse that’s afraid, that’s living in the moment and thinks it’s live or die—the veteran can empathize with that. He’s been in that position.”

The connection between human and horse, in that moment when the horse must decide whether to give over his feet—in essence his life—to a human being, holds tremendous power, McKevitt said. The tightly coiled former Marine, for example, who has compartmentalized so as not to feel, can’t help but feel what he sees snorting and trembling in front of him.

“You’ve got to stop, plant your feet in the ground, grow roots, breathe real deep, and watch the changes in your horse,” McKevitt said. “Watch him slow down, recognize his fear, and recognize how your actions affect the horse.”

In that moment, McKevitt said, the horse chooses to follow a leader who will keep him safe, while the leader is moved to help by the horse’s vulnerability. In that moment, the victim learns to stand tall, give direction, gain confidence. In that moment, the aggressor learns to moderate, live in the middle, self-check.

“For people who are struggling to fit back into society, or who are just struggling with living,” McKevitt said, “a horse can provide purpose, connection, and a trusting, respectful relationship.”

Susan and Joe Ahern, Friends

Joe and I met Paddy in 2005 when we built our farm. His huge smile welcomed us immediately and we knew instantly he would be a “forever friend”. His love of community and people is only superseded by his devotion to dogs and horses. Paddy is a genuine, one-of-a-kind character that only comes once in a lifetime. He became our 911-go-to friend whenever we needed help.

He was always quick to drop everything and save the day when needed. He has helped haul horses, stop flooding, fix fences, made sure our daughters were always safe, towed a car out of a snow bank, and always had a great story to share.

We have watched Paddy fulfill his dream by using his talents with horses by serving our military veterans with the organization BraveHearts. His passion and commitment now restores hope for our many returning soldiers. Paddy has served our community well, and was the glue for uniting people from all different perspectives. He has so richly touched our lives we named our Irish Setter after him! 

Stacey and Dennis Barsema, Friends

We are honored to speak on behalf of the Quintessential Person Honoree Paddy McKevitt. We met Paddy several years ago and he is instrumental in the lives of our horses. Paddy is an inspiring and dedicated horseman and he is also our dear friend. Through his amazing training and perception with horses, Paddy is able to read the horse and he helped us find three horses that were destined to belong to us. He is so insightful, and he was influential in helping build not only our relationship with the horses, but with him, as well.  

Paddy has an infectious personality that fills up a room and he is always wanting to help others. We truly believe Paddy has a gift with horses and our prayer for him is that he gets to focus 100 percent with BraveHearts and the amazing people he is helping through these incredible horses that are just so majestic. How wonderful that he has found the BraveHearts organization to fulfill his incredible gift with his amazing connection and communication; forging the human along with these incredible horses, and what better place to accomplish this than with the BraveHearts organization. BraveHearts is truly where he belongs. 

Meggan Hill-McQueeney, Friend and Colleague

I have known Paddy for a little more than a decade. Many years ago, I had heard about a man in the Barrington area who had trained a zebra, and I thought about Horse Power Camp (which was for children who were amputees who rode) and that they would love this, so I invited him out. When I finally had the chance to meet sweet “Jessie” the zebra and talk with Paddy, our friendship began instantly. He used to come visit the farm and was always curious about therapeutic riding and working cow horses. I tried to talk him into volunteering [with BraveHearts] and remembered thinking that this guy would be awesome at equine assisted activities for people in need.

Many years later at BraveHearts, we had an opening for someone who could help us working with veterans in the round pen. Paddy came to mind and has been working with us ever since. Later I wanted to start colt starting with our veterans, and Paddy raised my ante and called me one day and said, “Hey, let’s get a Mustang.” So I wrote to apply for BraveHearts to get approval for adoptions, and Paddy went to the auctions for us and brought us home four wild Mustangs. Now we are doing national trainings and programs to work with more veterans and Mustangs after the success of our pilot program.

The first retreat Paddy and I worked together was for women with military sexual trauma. We had a participant who wanted nothing to do with horses or the pen. To her, the pen was too confining; she would be “trapped” and the horse was a “predator” so she wanted nothing to do with it at all. Paddy helped me break down the pen, and then we just started to work little by little to support and work through a lot with her and her relationship with the horse. It was pretty emotional and I will always remember Paddy’s endless patience and his teamwork that very cold morning and that it was nearly Paddy’s first day on the job at BraveHearts. The day had a profound effect on all of us. To see how that woman went in the pen to who she became is something all of us will remember forever. That retreat was just the beginning to all the thousands of interactions Paddy now has had with veterans and children and adults with various diagnoses paired with horses. If there is a slogan for Paddy, it is that he’s as good with people as he is with horses. I am certain God has touched Paddy and in turn, Paddy touches people every day.

We could not be more proud to have Paddy on our team at BraveHearts. He was born to do this work. He is so kind and compassionate in everything he does. Working with people and horses together, helping both at the same time, is clearly his calling.

Stacie and Michael McManus, Friends

Our son, Jake, is a 19-year-old with autism. Three years ago, Paddy entered Jake’s life as a riding instructor and has become much more. He is one of Jake’s favorite people and has truly been a gift in our lives, especially during difficult days and times of family crisis. Paddy always makes Jake smile and understands Jake in ways most cannot. We are truly grateful for all that Paddy has given Jake, and the support and friendship he offers our family and Jake, also known as “The Sundance Kid”. Here are thoughts from Jake:

Paddy is my “Partner in Crime”. He is kind of kooky, but he is trustworthy. Paddy is my compadre, my horseback riding teacher, and my mentor. He is honorable, silly, fun, and understanding. Once, Paddy and I went trick-or-treating as the outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We also went as the Lone Ranger and Tonto. He helps me learn to Cowboy and lets me do loud Indian yells for fun. He is like a special person in my life, but one filled with wackiness and fun and great times. He brings me lots of Irish luck for all the horse things I work on up to this moment. I am going to L.A. for Special Olympics World Games 2015 Equestrian Team, and he helped me be ready to be a better rider (even though it’s English). He teaches me how to work on horse tricks and learning about horse behavior. Paddy lets me fool around and sometimes we prank each other. We try to see who the better jokester is. When Mom was sick I felt nervous, but Paddy tried to calm me down and kept me busy. I know things can’t be simple, but I try to hang on. My times with Paddy help me be focused and see what a good friend he is. This is my way of saying thanks for everything you teach me up to this point.

Allison Springer, Friend

Paddy has been a long-time friend of mine. We first met when he moved to Barrington to be the Professional Whip/Kennel Huntsman for the Fox River Valley Hunt some years ago. He has always had an affinity for a big, good-looking Chestnut horse. I think we first met when I was riding my horse, Diesel, (a big, good looking Chestnut with a white face) down the road.

Paddy is a lover of hunting, horses, dogs, zebras (and many funny stories that go along with that) and the countryside. I am an aspiring Olympic Three Day Event rider, and Paddy has always been incredibly supportive of me and my goals. The Olympic road is a very long journey filled with incredible highs and lows. To truly achieve that goal, one must be unwavering in their resolve to get there, be able to learn from every experience and just keep “kicking on” (“kick on” is one of Paddy’s life mottos). There has been a lot of heartbreak along my journey, but I have learned to surround myself with the people that believe in me (and my horses) no matter what. To have this constant support and belief has often times been what kept me kicking on in the most challenging of times. Paddy has always been one of these people for me. I hands down have one of the most challenging (albeit very talented) horses on the International circuit. He is a horse named Arthur (another big, good looking Chestnut) and we were alternates for the 2010 World Championship Team (WEG) and the 2012 Olympic Team. Paddy was instrumental in getting us there. Arthur is very spooky and sensitive. He is kind and he loves his job, but his spook made him unreliable in the eyes of the United States Team selectors. Paddy always loved Arthur and was probably the only other person that believed in that horse as much as I did. Paddy is a great natural horseman and he offered to help with Arthur’s spookiness and concentration. In the lead up to the 2010 World Championships, he came to my farm in Virginia to work with Arthur and then he joined us at the two major selection trials – Richland Park Horse Trials in Mich., (which we won) and The American Eventing Championships in Ga. Paddy’s patient and intelligent work with Arthur that year was a huge springboard for me both competitively and professionally.

Paddy is a very, very good friend. He is one of those people that would truly do anything for a friend. He is always good for a laugh too! He is very Irish – the good, the bad, the storytelling, the absurd adventures like riding the zebra, and truly loyal.

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Judy Masterson is a writer who lives in Lake County.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share with you exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in the community. For more information about Quintessential People™, contact QB or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits by Thomas) at 847-381-7710 or www.portraitsbythomas.com