Reel Deal Anglers is planning on opening a treatment center in the Pinedale area with Bravehearts acting in an advisory role, very soon. Wild horses and veteran therapy is so important and needed to help eradicate the amount of soldier suicides that is plaguing the USA. Please read the story about the Bravehearts folks and what they’re doing to help these vets.
Easing the trauma of war
Wild horses from Sweetwater County are used for veteran therapy
Photo Credit Tricia Carzoli
Marine Corps veteran Nicholas Montijo of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, went from recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression to helping veterans overcome their own issues through equine therapy using wild horses from Sweetwater County.
Matt Naber/[email protected]
SWEETWATER COUNTY — Marine Corps veteran Nicholas Montijo didn’t want to talk about the burdens he was carrying from post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression after finishing his service.
A wild horse recently captured from Sweetwater County is dangerous and responsive to emotion, providing just the right amount of adrenaline for a different kind of therapy session.
“When I first started coming, I was shot down and not dealing with the world,” Montijo said. “I had trouble finding purpose in life after the military, and now with Bravehearts and the horses, it gets me going and gives me purpose in life.”
Montijo of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is among the many veterans to work with Sweetwater County’s wild horses through the Bravehearts Therapeutic and Educational Center’s equine therapy program in Illinois.
LOCAL MUSTANGS USED FOR VETERAN THERAPY
Wild horses are being used to save veterans’ lives through equine therapy programs in the Midwest, and similar programs are growing in Wyoming.
Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s more than 8,000 veteran suicides each year. Estimates of 11 to 20 percent of veterans return from Afghanistan or Iraq with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, Bravehearts President and Chief Operating Officer Meggan Hill-McQueeny said.
Bravehearts helps veterans recover from the emotional and physical wounds sustained on duty by working with horses, including wild horses originally from Sweetwater County.
Horse therapy works for physically injured veterans, including brain and spinal injuries, amputations, PTSD, military sexual trauma and other issues, she said.
The emotional and psychological trauma of war can require therapy beyond what medication, or even people, can provide — and Sweetwater County’s wild horses are filling that need.
Working with horses gives the veterans a sense of purpose and feeling of fulfillment as they become quiet and effective leaders with the horses, Hill-McQueeny said.
In 2014, the group provided horse therapy services for 370 veterans, entirely free of charge.
Horses behave like a mirror, reflecting back whatever emotion the person they’re with is exhibiting. If the veteran is tense, the horse will be tense, so they learn to relax together.
“They see every pore and sync their heartbeat with yours,” Hill-McQueeny said. “When a veteran goes into a round-pen scenario, they have to quickly get in touch with themselves and how they regulate themselves. They have to change themselves to change a horse.”
At first it might be for just a few seconds, but over time it grows until it becomes a skill they can use whenever they become anxious, she said.
Other times a horse needs the person to be the leader since animals have a herd mentality. This is when veterans who have been “broken in a way” relearn to walk with intention, Hill-McQueeny said.
“Horses really help us heal in so many different ways, and that is what we see here,” she said. “The horse steps in and figures out the scenario better than we can and people greatly benefit from what the horses offer them.”
VETERAN RECOVERS AND PAYS IT FORWARD
Montijo started coming to Bravehearts as an inpatient at the Milwaukee VA Hospital in 2013 and has since become a certified instructor to teach veterans as well as adults and children with disabilities.
“Horses are like mirrors to emotions, so if you are wound up and have anxiety, they will show that right away, so I had to calm myself down,” Montijo said.
Prior to arriving at Bravehearts, Montijo said he wouldn’t have “in a million years” seen himself working with horses.
As an instructor, Montijo said he hears the veterans say “it is like seeing into their souls.” The veterans connect with the horses on a level deeper than they ever thought possible with anyone, human or animal, he said.
“Working with the veterans is amazing. You see guys come off the bus from different VA centers and are kind of skeptical of the horses, like ‘big deal, whatever,’ but then they get in there with a mustang and the adrenaline is pumping — and you see them leave with a big smile on their face,” Montijo said. “It is what gets me up in the morning, it gets me going.”
Working with horses is better than talking to a therapist because the horses are “like a mirror to your soul” and it brings the veterans out of their shell, he said. Of course, they also enjoy the danger and thrill of working with the horses.
“It gives you that adrenaline rush, and that is what veterans are looking for,” Montijo said. “Veterans respond more to the horses than a therapist because veterans get so much therapy shoved down their throats and the horses are just there. They are there to ride and learn their skill. It doesn’t matter if they talk about their problems.”
WHAT DO THEY DO?
It takes a patient and gentle approach to work with any horse, particularly a wild one. Horses feed off the emotions of the people they’re with, so veterans learn to control their emotions while working with the horses.
Therapy sessions are customized to meet the veterans’ needs and skill level, so only the advanced ones seeking a challenge are paired with wild horses. Bravehearts started working with veterans in 2007, so the wild horses are a fairly new addition. The group started with four wild horses.
“I don’t see where anything like that could go wrong for the veterans and the horses,” Bureau of Land Management wild horse adoption coordinator Kathi Fine said.
One of Bravehearts’ mustangs is used for hippotherapy for children, a type of physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses the characteristic movements of a horse to provide motor and sensory input.
Another mustang is used for therapeutic riding. Veterans ride him around the facility and participate in horse shows, Hill-McQueeny said.
Another of the original four wild horses is used for groundwork in the round pen for foundation horsemanship with the veterans.
The fourth animal was young when adopted and is being saddle broke by the veterans.
Five new additions are now being added into the mix.
“We hear over and over again that horses save their lives, gives them self-worth and purpose and unconditional love,” Hill-McQueeny said.
WHY WILD HORSES?
Some of the veterans at Bravehearts were becoming more skilled in working with horses and were ready for a challenge for improving their horsemanship, Hill-McQueeny said. The organization adopted four wild horses in 2013 through the Mustang Heritage Foundation.
“They all turned out to be super horses,” she said.
Unlike domestic horses, mustangs have a “rawness” about them that accelerates their trainer’s horsemanship faster and creates a stronger bond, she said.
The veterans were particularly drawn to the wild horses because they represented freedom, survival and self-preservation — all of which resonated with the veterans, she said.
“There is a huge parallel between a mustang and a veteran,” Hill-McQueeny said. “They are full of adrenaline, and often a veteran is as well, so there is a natural gravitation. The mustangs really seem to take to the veterans.”
Many veterans may not be in a position where they are ready to leave their homes or reintegrate into society, but having wild horses at the facility is a big draw, she said.
“The wild horse controversy has been brewing for years and costs taxpayers money, so we are putting the horses to work and helping people,” Hill-McQueeny said. “It is wonderful to see how much they change lives and the veterans change the horses’ lives.”
Their two favorite wild horses from the original four came from the Sweetwater County area, so the group came to Rock Springs in late February to adopt five more to meet their growing demand in Illinois.
“We really liked those horses and wanted to find more like them,” Hill-McQueeny said.
Bravehearts wasn’t the only group to adopt area wild horses with the goal of saving lives. A few others were adopted to be used for search and rescue in Montana, Fine said.
“We are excited about that, very excited,” Fine said.
For the last eight years, Wyoming veterans have had the opportunity to work with a horse trainer in an arena for about six weeks through the Children, Horses and Adults in Partnership program. During that time, participants cover the basics for horse training and learn to make decisions, said Jackie Van Mark, public affairs director for the Sheridan VA System.
Wyoming’s veterans in the equine therapy program do a type of hands-on therapy that relies heavily on metaphors as opposed to talk therapy, said medical foster home coordinator for the Sheridan VA and licensed clinical social worker Maggie Kaelin.
“I think the veterans react very positively. A lot of veterans are doers, and when going out to work with horses and being active, they can visualize and come up with different strategies to work with the issues or problems they are facing,” Kaelin said.
Participants pick out horses from the herd who reminds them of themselves and then other horses who remind them of their issues or people in their lives, and those are all used to help them have a visual and hands-on approach to finding solutions to their problems, Kaelin said.
“I have experienced a lot of ah-ha moments. Sometimes it takes the visualization,” Kaelin said. “There is a lot of self-awareness that comes with that.”
The program now is for in-patient veterans at the Sheridan VA clinic. In addition to equine therapy, participants also undergo traditional approaches such as group therapy.
“I’ve heard from the veterans how much they enjoyed it and benefited,” Kaelin said. “It is a well thought of program and we are very lucky to be able to offer it.”
Once Wyoming’s veterans leave the VA system, they try to make arrangements with nearby programs for continued horse therapy if it’s available, Van Mark said.
ADDING IT UP
Bravehearts had a 53 percent increase in participation from 2013 to 2014, requiring 26,000 hours of volunteer work.
Bravehearts provided free services to 370 veterans, 13,035 sessions within all of its programs and 2,748 sessions just for veterans. It also had 1,083 unduplicated sessions for veterans and people such as Gold Star Mothers who lost their children in combat.
The group’s annual budget is a little more than $1 million, so it relies on grants, fundraisers and donations, Hill-McQueeny said.
The Sheridan VA had 72 participants in the equine therapy program in 2014, and that number is set to nearly double for 2015, CHAPS executive director Kristen Marcus said. Additional funding was received so they can provide equine therapy to veterans in the area who are not part of the inpatient program through the VA.
“We are really excited about this program,” Marcus said. “With the addition of the local guys that live here, it is huge.”
REACHING MORE VETERANS
Veterans often are treated with medication and traditional forms of therapy, but those approaches don’t work for everyone and sometimes a different approach is needed, Hill-McQueeny said.
Bravehearts is in the process of working with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to write a curriculum for horses and veterans to be used across the country, Hill-McQueeny said.
“There is a big need for programs like this, and we are taking it further with mustangs here, with huge results,” Hill-McQueeny said. “I had six veterans before a crowd, and all of them sat there and talked about, sobbed about, how horses saved them, got them out of the house, gave them a reason to live and became a friend. They gave them a change of perspective and felt needed.”
There now are no programs in southwestern Wyoming like what is being done by Bravehearts with the horses from southwestern Wyoming. Veteran and Sweetwater County Commissioner Don Van Matre said he would like to see something get started in the area since the wild horses are acclimated to the region and there are veterans in the community
“It’s good for the horses and good for the veterans,” Van Matre said. “I’d like to see them (the wild horses) stay as close as possible. And if we have needs for that, which I’m sure we do, we could expand to it and that would be great.”