Alternative Healing at The Big Red Barn Retreat

There was the Coast Guard veteran besieged by back pain, downing pills, and over a dozen beers a day who found relief and peace through a yoga program. There was the veteran with PTSD who used photography to help him navigate crowded public areas he would have been skittish about before.

There were the veterans who used psychotherapy involving horses to develop the social skills they needed to thrive outside the military.

Sutton Shaw has seen all that and more as executive director of the Big Red Barn Retreat, a 72-acre nonprofit in Blythewood that offers free services to help active duty service members, veterans, and their families find the peace to help them heal the hidden wounds of combat, or navigate the stresses of military life.

“This is a place where we provide services that help them along their journey to better mental health, so they can begin to have a better quality of life,” Shaw says. “That’s our whole intent, to put some peace back in their lives, so they can enjoy their lives.”

Founded in 2014 in memory of Shaw’s late father, a Navy veteran and restaurateur, the Big Red Barn Retreat is a Columbia-area charity with close ties to Fort Jackson and the Dorn VA Medical Center. It’s there for combat veterans dealing with PTSD or survivor’s guilt, veterans struggling to find order and purpose in non-military life, or any other current and former military members looking for a quiet place and an ear willing to listen.

The retreat offers yoga specifically designed for military members, in which mindfulness can bring users as much relief as the exercises themselves.

There’s a vegetable garden, 5 miles of walking trails, weekly peer-to-peer mentoring, and a healing arts program that all encourage conversation and offer alternative ways of healing.

“It’s less about art, and more about the conversations you have while doing it,” Shaw says. “It helps you emotionally digest what you’re going through as you are with other people with like experiences. We find that when you do the art, you’re more relaxed, and you start talking to others and find out they’re having issues similar to what you’re having. It really fosters a talk therapy session.”

The retreat may be best known for its equine-assisted psychotherapy, in which the horse is used not for riding, but for interaction — the creatures are sensitive to emotions that humans give off, and able to detect anger or anxiety in a veteran or service member before another person would.

“They’re getting immediate feedback from the horse that the therapist is able to observe,” Shaw says. “It allows them to see the energy they’re putting off. If they have a lot of anger, the horse will react. A lot of them think they’re doing a good job hiding their anger from their families. But the horse becomes a tool that gives immediate, hands-on feedback.”

The equine-assisted psychotherapy has helped veterans reflect, project and make deep connections to ward off isolation, key in trying to reduce a veteran suicide rate that stands at 22 per day. “Veterans come home and they’re struggling, and they become isolated. They don’t talk to anybody, they don’t leave their house,” Shaw says. “Isolation leads to depression, depression leads to loneliness, and eventually it goes down a very dark path.”

The retreat is on track to host over 2,800 current and former service members this year. It has no official employees — even Shaw is a volunteer. Donations help provide free therapeutic services. The retreat is also trying to raise $200,000 to build a covered area for equine psychotherapy so the program can be held even in inclement weather.

The Big Red Barn Retreat accepts donations at 8204 Winnsboro Road, Blythewood, S.C., 29016. The retreat is also in need of items such as paper towels, other paper products, and bottles of water to help in its mission of aiding veterans and military members in search of better mental health.

“It’s providing them a place where they can find peace,” Shaw says, “and begin their journey of healing.”

Interested in donating to the Big Red Barn Retreat, or learning more about the services it offers to veterans, active duty service members, and their families? Call them at (803) 716-9097, or visit their website at