Harvard equine therapy program helps save veterans, wild mustangs

Harvard equine therapy program helps save veterans, wild mustangs

HARVARD – Before Army veteran Mitchell Hedund visited BraveHearts, he was scared of horses. This week, he and nine other veterans will tame – or gentle, as the professionals call it – wild mustangs.

These veterans, whose lives have been touched by BraveHearts, are demonstrating their horsemanship skills at Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming.

“In every facet of my life, it has given me purpose,” said Mitchell Reno, a veteran of the U.S. Army, about BraveHearts.

BraveHearts was established after Marge Tautkus Gunnar, who was battling ovarian cancer, shared an intimate interaction while visiting her Lipizzan stallion Max. He, for the first time ever, placed his head on her shoulder as if giving her a hug. After achieving remission, Gunnar started BraveHearts to grant others similar healing experiences.

Today, with locations in Harvard and Poplar Grove, BraveHearts provides therapeutic equine services to a diverse community, but is most widely known for its services to veterans. BraveHearts facilities have a total of 48 therapy horses and offer services such as therapeutic riding and hippotherapy, among others. Not only are these experiences offered to veterans free of charge, BraveHearts is the largest veteran equine program in the United States.

“In my case, I was isolating myself, basically living in my recliner in the garage,” Air Force veteran Ron Hathaway said. “So I went into the inpatient program and started getting connected with horses and people, and it literally saved my life.”

In addition to providing these equine services, BraveHearts is a Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Premier Accredited Center. Because of its innovative methods, BraveHearts has set curriculum, content and courses for PATH Intl.

Director of Operations Paddy McKevitt, has noticed changes in the veterans BraveHearts serves. McKevitt said he has witnessed life-changing moments take place. Although the process might occur at different speeds for different veterans, McKevitt said he has observed drastic improvements in their abilities to trust and communicate.

“It’s not for everybody, but I think it can save a lot of people,” said Mary Apper, active duty member of the Navy.

Army veteran Mitchell Hedlund acknowledges the influence BraveHearts has had on his life, referring to the statistic that 22 veterans take their lives each day as result of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I would be part of the 22 vets a day, that was guaranteed, without BraveHearts,” Hedlund said. “BraveHearts really gave me back my life. It gave me not just my old life, but a new life. It gave my kids a father, it gave my mother a son.”

The 10 veterans will work regularly to gentle wild mustangs from Wyoming at Cheyenne Frontier Days, a multi-day event lasting from July 22-31. These veterans from BraveHearts, part of the Operation Mustang program, will incorporate a soft, consistent and fair approach as they build relationships with the mustangs.

After the 22 mustangs are gentled, they will be adopted at a live public auction on July 29 where bidders can phone in. Adoption prevents these mustangs from the possibility of being held in holding pens because of overpopulation. To offer a bid or pledge support for BraveHearts, contact President/COO Meggan Hill-McQueeney at 847-366-4571 or meggan@braveheartsriding.org

“It takes a whole lot from people to support an endeavor like this. Every program we have at BraveHearts for veterans is free. They served us and it’s well overdue we try and serve them,” Hill-McQueeny said.

The veterans selected to attend have both benefited and developed skills while working with the horses at BraveHearts. Additionally, BraveHearts hopes to use Cheyenne Frontier Days to create awareness and reach other veterans and supporters.

“BraveHearts needs to be promoted. We need to start realizing and getting the public to realize that not only do veterans have purposes, not only are we useful, but these mustangs need to stop slipping through the cracks,” Hedlund said.

Before their departure, members of the veteran team anticipated the festivities of Cheyenne Frontier Days. Apper said she looked forward to demonstrating the horsemanship skills and gentling techniques she has learned from BraveHearts.

“I’m a huge fan of the underdog, and I can’t wait to show people what a so-called useless veteran can do with a so-called useless horse,” Apper said.

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