By Mike Glenn
BEASLEY, Texas — Cpl. Steven Schulz looked as proud as any Marine could be sitting astride a horse named Xena at a ranch west of Rosenberg, Texas.
“I’ll do a trot for awhile, I guess,” Schulz said as Xena began to sway back and forth while steadily picking up speed.
“Ride as long as you want,” said Jan Shultis, director of the Xena Project, which offers therapeutic riding programs for wounded veterans at her family’s ranch in Beasley.
Schulz was injured in an improved explosive device blast that left him paralyzed and blind in one eye. He took a medical retirement from the Marine Corps.
The horse Schulz was riding that day wasn’t like any other at the ranch.
“She is fiberglass – just like a Corvette,” Shultis said.
Xena is a full-sized, articulated equine simulator originally used to train competitive dressage riders. Shultis said Xena is perfect for veterans with severe combat injuries, like Schulz.
“They’re able to work through the experience in a safe environment. It’s not a live horse, so we can turn it off,” Shultis said.
The rocking motion of the simulator helps Schulz improve his balance and strengthen his core muscles. Because he must interact with a handler, it also helps sharpen his thinking skills.
“He thought it was pretty cool. It gave him a very good workout,” said Debbie Schulz, his mother and primary caregiver.
In 2005, Schulz was on his second tour of duty in Iraq when a roadside bomb detonated outside his Humvee in Fallujah. Schulz, a missile gunner, spent about six weeks in a coma.
Family members said Schulz wasn’t expected to survive his injuries. His first memory after waking up at the Bethesda Naval Hospital was Gen. Michael Hagee, the former Marine Corps commandant, leaning over him to pin on a Purple Heart medal.
Like any good Marine, Schulz attempted a salute but Hagee stopped him.
“He said, ‘No sir. I’m going to salute you,’ ” Schulz recalled.
The road to recovery has been bumpy since Schulz, now 30, was injured nearly a decade ago. He was in and out of hospitals for about six months and spent several years in a wheelchair.
“He didn’t fully understand the extent of his injuries,” Debbie Schulz said. “He’d look at me and say, ‘What are we doing now?'”
Schulz is originally from Friendswood and is back living there now. He tried community college after graduating from Friendswood High in 2002, but it didn’t work out.
“He was partying more than he was studying,” Debbie Schulz said.
He once designed a T-shirt that highlighted his primary interests. It said: “Girls, Girls, Girls, Cars,” his mother recalled.
Schulz came home after his Christmas break with an announcement that stunned his family.
“He said, ‘Mom. I need discipline. I’m joining the Marines,’ ” she said.
Schulz wasn’t planning to make a career of the Marine Corps. He wanted to become a professional race driver and was looking into driving schools after his military hitch was up.
“That was his big passion: cars and driving fast. And now he can’t drive,” Debbie Schulz said.
While his traumatic brain injury has affected his cognitive abilities, he has experienced victories large and small.
Now, he can walk with the assistance of a cane and Sonny, his good-natured service dog.
“He likes being active but it takes a lot of support to keep him that way,” Debbie Schulz said.
The new-found mobility has allowed Schulz to try some physical activities like skiing and now riding the mechanical horse owned by Shultis, an Afghan war veteran herself.
Shultis hoped to become an aviator when she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, but less-than-perfect vision sidelined that ambition. Instead, she became a public affairs officer and in 2011 was sent to Afghanistan as part of Joint Task Force 435 which directed U.S. detainee operations there.
“I was excited to go. I was extremely impressed with the skills of the Army infantry units we worked with,” said Shultis, who comes from a family with a long military history.
She spent about eight months in Afghanistan and was then sent to a stateside Navy assignment.
“When I came back, I felt lost. I didn’t feel like there were people around me that I could identify with,” Shultis said. “You have this life-changing experience but you’re just not sure what to do with it.”
Her 9-to-5 public affairs job with the Navy in San Diego gave Shultis the chance to explore an interest in horseback riding.
“The time around the horses was calming. It gave me something else to focus on,” she said.
In the past few years she began to hear about some of her fellow Naval Academy graduates who were coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq with severe combat injuries.
“You look at these things that are healing and supportive of you and wonder, ‘How do I share this with others?’ ” Shultis said.
Shultis learned the basics of riding on a simulator made by a company in England called Racewood. She called the business and told the woman who answered that she wanted to buy one.
“She said I sounded like I wanted to order a pizza,” Shultis remembered with a laugh.
The price tag was $100,000 – all the money she had saved while in the Navy.
The plan was to use the simulator – now named Xena after a beloved horse that still lives on the family’s property – as a business to help novice riders become comfortable in the saddle. But soon the word began to spread to wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans like Schulz. Since the program became a registered charity in August, about 50 veterans have ridden Xena.
Some of Schulz’s fellow Marines gently lifted him into the saddle. They remained by his side as Xena went through her paces.
“This guy is our brother. We owe him a debt we can’t repay,” said Tim Cropley, a retired police officer who also served in the Marine Corps.
“I’ve never cantered on a horse. This is a great workout,” Schulz said. “A ‘Devil Dog’ on a devil horse.”
“He doesn’t have much of a fear of anything,” his mother added.
©2014 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC