ANDOVER — Bob Giles is living proof that dreams come true. He’s also an inspiration to foster children and disabled veterans.

All it took was unwavering perseverance for nearly 70 years and a lot of horses for the three-time Purple Heart recipient and Vietnam vet, who winters in Florida and summers in Rumford.

Giles is a world-champion horse driver and a clinician who specializes in retraining traumatized horses. He and his wife, Brenda, an Andover native, own the Winter Hill Driving Center in Morriston, Fla. They teach horses and their drivers the skills necessary to enjoy safe carriage driving and dressage.

Bob Giles owned and operated Gentle Brook Farm, a driving-horse training center in Maine for 14 years. He also worked as a carriage-tour driver for several years at Acadia National Park.

In June, Bob Giles’ long-held dream to represent the United States in one of the world’s top equestrian events finally came true.

After being selected for the U.S. para-equestrian driving team, he competed in the 2014 Fédération Equestre Internationale World Para-Equestrian Driving Championships at the Royal Estate in Sandringham, England, in June.

He dedicated his drive to the memory of the more than 58,000 men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

Up against 30 other drivers in the disabled driving competition, he took second place and won a silver medal. The team won a bronze medal.

“Basically, it’s just another horse show — a very, very expensive horse show — but anytime you get to represent your country, it takes it to a different level,” Giles said Wednesday morning in Andover.

“I went through 13 foster homes, you know, so I would like to be an inspiration that even though it took me 68 years to get this done, that you never let go of your dreams.

“You don’t let people steal your dreams — and in those circumstances, that’s easy to do,” he said. “You know, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself or feel oppressed, or whatever, and you’ve got to keep grinding it out.”


The Lubec native did feel that way after returning stateside from Vietnam, where he served for two years at the Khe Sanh Combat Base with the Echo Company 2/26 Third Marines.

Khe Sanh is in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, 18 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone and eight miles east of Laos. Originally an Army Special Forces base created in 1962 beside a small airstrip near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was a U.S. Marine Corps outpost under siege by the North Vietnamese Army from April 1967 to July 1968 during the Tet Offensive.

The first day Giles arrived in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, he was wounded by a direct mortar hit in a trench line. Six months later, he was wounded by a rocket. Three months after that, he was hit by a grenade.

He lost 90 percent of his hearing, has pins and rods in both legs and his back, plates in his back and head and nerve damage in his left elbow. He only has partial use of his right hand because his elbow was shattered in 17 pieces. It had to be fused, limiting its movement.

“Coming back from Vietnam, that was 10 times worse than the wounds,” Giles said. “When you get spit on and called bad names and are ill-thought-of because you sacrificed, that creates a lot of problems mentally.

“And we all just wanted to seep back into society and take our path and do our job — and that’s what, for the most part, everybody did.”

Engage, adapt and overcome

“The Marines identified my motto in life, although I didn’t know it at the time: ‘Engage, adapt and overcome,'” Giles said. “And that’s what all of us did who came back from Vietnam.”

Ten years ago, Giles had to overcome once more — he endured a quadruple bypass.

But Giles got started on that motto’s course very early in life in Down East Maine. His parents were alcoholics, so the state of Maine removed Giles and his three brothers from that abusive situation and separated them, placing them into the foster care system. And that’s where his life’s work with horses began.

“Horses were always there for me,” he said. “Every foster home I went to, there was always a draft horse waiting for me because folks Down East just didn’t have the money for tractors and such in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Foster home guardians made him work with horses as punishment.

“Initially, I was forced into it,” Giles said. “But then I grew to love it, so when they sent me to work out with the horses, that wasn’t exactly punishment.”

On Wednesday morning, Giles was training three Belgian draft horses to pull a cart. The horses are owned by Harry and Tammy Hutchinson of Andover, and weigh about three tons altogether. With a unicorn hitch and help from Giles, Harry and his farmhand, Matthew Mason, 17, of South Paris, hitched off horse Mike, 12; nigh horse, Levi, 8; and lead horse, Jewel, 10.

Like Giles, Mason competes at state fairs. He enters junior horse-driver competitions for horse pairs, halter class, teams or para, and single horse and cart.

Once the horses were hitched, Giles climbed into the driver’s seat of the cart and Mason threw him the reins. Mason climbed aboard to learn from a master in action as Giles drove the team a mile up the side of East Andover Road and back.

“Nothing like having three tons on your fingertips and asking them what to do,” Giles said. “This is where you learn the word ‘finesse,’ because you can’t outpower them, you know. All you’ve got to do is suggest that they go that way and hope. They’re exactly like teenagers.”

They were practicing for Sunday’s horse-driving competitions at the Topsham Fair.

Giles said that as a child, he drove his first horse on an old hay-rake wagon at Edmonds in 1955. And it was a runaway.

“It threw me off,” he said. “So, I got back up, took the horse, took it down on the shoreline — because we were right on the ocean there and put mud where she got stung — and went in the woods, cut another sapling, repaired (the wagon’s) shaft, put me back in (the wagon) and I’ve been there ever since.”

At age 10, he started logging with draft horses, using a logging sled.

“As a state kid, I had no say in my life,” Giles said. “I didn’t say where I was going to live, I didn’t say what I was going to wear, I didn’t say what school I was going to go to.

“That was the first time I had someone to do my bidding,” he said of the horses. “Whatever I asked them, the horse would do. So for me, to pay the horse back for helping me get through my childhood, the best thing I can do is become a clinician and a judge, because what I say, people will take as gospel.”

When he and Brenda got married, she told him, “You’re going to pick a piece out of the trainer’s pie that nobody wants, and that’s how you’re going to be successful.”

“So I took traumatized horses and my phone hasn’t stopped ringing since,” Bob Giles said.

But he’s not a horse whisperer, he said.

“As a matter of fact, I even holler and they don’t pay any attention to me,” he said. “But the thing of it is, because I drive more than 500 different horses a year, that’s 500 different experiences — so my toolbox is full of things I can do to help the horse do the job, and that’s how I’m able to help other people.”

Last week, he drove 20 horses in Nova Scotia while holding a clinic.

Giles said he asks for 90 days to bring a traumatized horse back from trauma, “because you have to go right back to the basics. They’re not brave by themselves, so that’s my job to help them be brave.

“I can’t save all the horses in the world — but the ones that pass in front of me, you know, I can help them by giving them the correct work ethics,” he said. “So if they do their work correctly, there would be less chance for someone to abuse them.”

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