To shed light on the growing epidemic of veteran suicide, the therapeutic horsemanship nonprofit BraveHearts is embarking on its third annual “Trail to Zero” series of rides this month in three cities.
C&I talked with Meggan Hill-McQueeney (at left), president and COO of BraveHearts, about healing through horses and the organization’s special series of rides for veterans, “Trail to Zero” in Washington, D.C. (September 7); New York City (September 14); and Chicago (September 28).
Cowboys & Indians: How many veterans are we losing to suicide?
Meggan Hill McQueeney: According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, every day, on average, 20 veterans take their own lives — and the risk for suicide is 22 percent higher among veterans when compared to U.S. non-veteran adults. For many reasons, including the severity of symptoms, stigma, or lack of resources, veterans aren’t receiving the care they need.
C&I: How do horses help with healing traumatized veterans?
Mill-McQueeney: Pairing veterans and horses is successful in restoring a veteran’s confidence and sense of self because they can relate to the keen intuition horses possess. Horses are a powerful species that lives in the moment. Once the anxiety within the rider stills, so does the horse.
Veterans at BraveHearts have reported benefits including increased self-esteem, self-worth, trust for others, community integration, and decreased depression, anxiety, post-traumatic disorder symptoms, and self-inflicting thoughts.
C&I: Tell us about the Trail to Zero rides. What does the name signify? What do you hope the rides will accomplish?
Hill-McQueeney: To shed light on the growing epidemic of veteran suicide, BraveHearts is embarking on our third annual “Trail to Zero” ride in Washington, D.C. (September 7); New York City (September 14); and Chicago (September 28). The 20-mile ride in each city commemorates the number of veterans lives lost, while cultivating a conversation around the mental health crisis plaguing those who have served the country and educating those in need about the benefits and healing effects of equine-assisted services.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The purpose of Trail to Zero is to draw wide-scale attention to the growing epidemic of veteran suicide, shine a light on the effective ways mental health can be improved and veterans can be supported through equine-assisted services. So many veterans need our help, and we’ll continue to raise awareness and ride to showcase the healing power of horsemanship to combat veteran suicide until 20 deaths per day becomes zero.
C&I: How did BraveHearts come about and what does the organization do?
Hill-McQueeney: BraveHearts is the largest Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) program in the country serving veterans all at no cost, offering equine services to provide emotional, cognitive, social, and physical benefits for veterans.
The seeds for BraveHearts were sown in the early 1990s, as Marge Tautkus Gunnar, recovering from ovarian cancer treatment, experienced the benefits of working with horses to aid in her recovery. Impressed with the life-changing effect this had on people of all ages and with different ability levels, she began preparations to share this experience and enable others who are in distress to feel the healing and strength she felt through her connection with her beloved horse, Max. Marge’s husband, Dr. Rolf Gunnar. envisioned the farm could help veterans like himself.
BraveHearts was incorporated in the State of Illinois in October of 2002. With generous grant support from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, BraveHearts introduced equine services for military veterans in July 2007. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, BraveHearts operates two facilities in Poplar Grove and Harvard in Illinois.
C&I: We’d love to hear one or two success stories in which the equine bond rehabilitated a vet.
Hill-McQueeney: [One is] Nichelle Wrenn of Glendale Heights, Illinois. Watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11 as a child solidified a desire to join the Air Force, serving from 2008 until 2013. After a chance meeting with a BraveHearts instructor in 2017, she become hooked on the camaraderie and dedication shown by the BraveHearts horses, veterans, volunteers, and staff. Grateful and humbled by the opportunities afforded at BraveHearts she can often be found in the barn, emptying water buckets or cleaning horse stalls. As one of the youngest veterans and growing horsewomen she enjoys her time off the horse, leading in lessons or watching riders and instructors, almost as much as riding. Experiencing so many veterans who are open and honest about their mental health struggles and herself having a very stressful career in security with the federal government led her to get serious about her own anxiety. Still very much learning about horses and her own struggles with mental health she hopes to destigmatize mental health services for veterans and non-veterans alike.
[Another is] Mitchell Reno (above) of North Richland Hills, Texas. U.S. Army Infantry, OIF/OEF veteran, served from 2000 – 2004. Mitchell was introduced to BraveHearts through an Illinois VA program he was enrolled in. After his program ended, he came back from Texas to participate specifically with the mustangs at BraveHearts. He can relate what the wild mustang is going through to his own experience reintegrating into civilian life. He explains the feeling that overcomes him when working the mustang as the most calming feeling he has ever experienced. After years of struggling with substance abuse and PTSD attacks, Mitchell has, for the first time since the military, been able to see a future for him and has the feeling that everything is going to be OK. He has obtained his PATH certification and has become very involved in BraveHearts teaching veterans and becoming a Special Olympics coach to teach children and adults to prepare for the equestrian games. After oen and a half years at BraveHearts, Mitchell has returned home to Texas to be with his wife and children. His dream is to develop or work for a program in Texas to help more veterans. 2019 will be Mitchell’s third year participating in Trail to Zero.
C&I: What do the vets say about horses? What do they say about the BraveHearts program?
Hill-McQueeney: Let them speak for themselves.
Mitchell Hedlund: The horses are amazing at BraveHearts. Each individual horse has a spot in my heart. The program allows freedom that most vets take away from themselves. The horses give me the ability to look inside of myself and better cater to my own needs. They give me the opportunity to enhance my patience and understanding of my environment.
Marshall Wolfe: Nonverbal communication between the veteran and horse is key. These horses are angels with four hooves. The horses build confidence and trust and we are able to take that out into the world with us and deal with things in a different perspective. Being at BraveHearts has given me confidence to make better decisions in my life and choose a better path.
David Mould: I came to BraveHearts as a volunteer and didn’t know much about equine therapy, but I went to different trainings and learned a lot. Finding out how horses can sense our feelings, being nervous or upset, was a real eye-opener for me. It is so hard to explain to people exactly how it works, but it does. Watching someone that was skeptical at first and then seeing the change in them when they are with the horse is so amazing. It helps me so much to help others. I used to keep so much inside of me, but after being here at BraveHearts with the horses, I’ve learned to share my feelings. It is a great thing!
C&I: How can veterans find and take advantage of BraveHearts' programs?
Hill-McQueeney: Veterans can find BraveHearts on social media — Facebook and Instagram, and on our website: braveheartsriding.org. They can contact BraveHearts directly by calling either one of our facilities. It’s as easy as a phone call or email to get involved in the program.
C&I: Anything else you’d like to get out there about BraveHearts and the Trail to Zero rides?
Hill-McQueeney: When asking a veteran about the Trail to Zero ride and what he would like to share he said that after so many years of losing his friends to the battle of PTSD, he feels this ride gives his brothers and sisters a voice and their passing wasn’t in vain.
Healing horsemanship lessens any degree of disability, both physical and cognitive, with our qualified staff and professional equipment.
BraveHearts offers many programs, including retreats, Operation Mustang, and the new Freedom Trail/Equine Confidence Course. There are many great things happening at BraveHearts!
Find out more at braveheartsriding.org.
Photography: Gary Thompson