This year has been traumatic for most, if not all, of us. Take your pick: a global pandemic, climate change disasters, civil unrest, economic hardship. These types of intense traumas might be new to us, but there is a faction of society that understand and live with trauma every day ‒ military veterans.
In the United States, 20 veterans and active service members commit suicide every day. In Canada, a recent study by Veterans Affairs Canada also found that male veterans have a 1.4-time higher risk of dying by suicide than the general population, while female veterans have a 1.9-time higher risk of suicide than females in the general population. In both countries these rates are considered a mental and public health crisis.
BraveHearts is a nonprofit therapeutic riding center in Illinois that offers equine therapy programs at no cost for military veterans. An offshoot of BraveHearts is Trail to Zero, which started in 2017 when five veterans were led by BraveHearts president/COO Meggan Hill-McQueeney and American reining champion Aaron Ralston on a 20-mile ride through New York City. Its mission was to ride 20 miles to commemorate the number of veterans and active service members lost to suicide daily, cultivate a conversation around the mental health crisis plaguing those who have served, and educate veterans and citizens about the benefits of equine-assisted services as an alternative approach to healing.
Trail to Zero continues to be spearheaded by Hill-McQueeney, who was born without her right arm and found the physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits in riding horses at a very young age. Now, she is on a larger mission to stem the suicide rate among veterans. On September 25, Meggan and a group of veterans rode 20 miles in Lexington, Kentucky and another group will ride 20 miles in Illinois on October 11, which you can follow virtually.
Horse-Canada.com spoke with Meggan about the important work Bravehearts is doing.
You see veterans go through the program every day. Are there ever any who arrive doubtful that horses can help them, but then make progress despite initial reservations?
Some vets start out skeptical and doubtful that a horse can help solve their problems, but I have never seen a situation where a horse has not helped. Usually after the first session, I can’t get them to leave! When you’re near a horse, you have to practice the art of keeping your energy in a good spot – to trust them, they have to trust you. Helping a horse reciprocates to helping the person, it’s a natural thing but it does end up changing you. Usually veterans don’t just tell me that the horse improved their quality of life; they often say that the horse saved their life.
How does the equine therapy program for veterans differ from those for other groups ‒ disabled or autistic children, or other adults with PTSD or emotional issues?
Equine services for veterans include emotional, cognitive, social and physical benefits. As veterans increase their horsemanship and involvement with BraveHearts, additional opportunities including clinics with world-renowned horsemen, trail rides and horse shows are available for them to participate in as well.
In addition to veterans, BraveHearts also serves children and adults with various diagnoses through programming including therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, and Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). The interaction between the horse and a person with physical, cognitive or emotional challenges can prove highly rewarding, regardless of age or diagnoses.
You were born with physical challenges; how did horses help you? And is that why you do the work you do?
I was born without my right arm and started riding at about three years old and fell in love with horses. My parents used it as a motivator to help me gain strength, self-esteem, a strong work ethic, resilience and confidence. The horses never made me think I was different; in fact, quite the opposite, as I have this innate mental attitude that anything is possible. I don’t allow any bit of quit in my life.
What do you want readers to take away from this Trail to Zero ride and BraveHearts article?
Many veterans come to our farms because nothing else has worked for them. It’s a bit of a last stop. It needs to be recognized and become an earlier place for help and healing for people. They tell us that the horses were able to save their lives, so we know that change is possible by putting veterans and horses together.
When we reach veterans battling suicidal ideologies and let them know that they are not alone, that the community cares, and non-traditional services can help — we have done our job. The horses do the hard work. They are the keys and so reflective for people in need.
Horse-Canada.com also spoke with Angie Colella, 50, who served in the US Air Force from 1989-1992, about her firsthand experience with the BraveHearts program and Trail to Zero.
Was your first horse experience at BraveHearts?
My first experience at BraveHearts was in the round pen with mustangs, Oatie and Batman. I immediately felt a deep connection with these beautiful wild horses as we responded to each other’s movement and energy and communicated with no words. I had always loved horses, but I had never experienced anything like this. Learning to ride came next, and words cannot adequately describe the feelings of empowerment and worth which this unique therapeutic service left me feeling.
What made you decide to try working with horses to help you through your trauma?
I was referred to BraveHearts after trying various other therapies. Counseling and medication had been somewhat helpful, but not nearly enough.
Tell us about your PTSD and how equine therapy helped you.
My traumatic experiences during active duty as a Security Police Officer led to a 30-year struggle with PTSD, depression, and self-imposed isolation. I had never heard of equine therapy before and was surprised at how much it helped me. Working with the horses makes me so much more aware of where I am mentally and emotionally, and it helps me keep that same awareness in challenging situations during everyday life. The horses also helped me regain confidence and a sense of self-worth. My accomplishments in horsemanship and being able to help other veterans as part of Trail to Zero are something I’m proud of. Those are feelings I had been missing for a long time.
What would like veterans and other people to take away from your experience and that of Trail to Zero?
If you are struggling, please know that you are not alone and help is out there. If nothing else is working, try equine-assisted therapy ‒ you have nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain. My life has been changed by the horses at BraveHearts, and Trail to Zero shows how equine therapy has helped me to be able to reach back to offer a hand to other veterans in need.
To learn more about the benefits of equine-assisted therapies and the Trail to Zero rides, visit braveheartsriding.org or Google Equine Assisted Therapy to find a centre near you.