Wounded veterans discover horses' therapeutic effects in Barrington Hills
What a little horsepower does for veterans
Mitchell Hedlund was a broken man when summer began.
Suffering from the physical pain of a back injury and post-traumatic stress caused by a rocket-propelled grenade while deployed in Afghanistan in 2011, he had become a virtual recluse, confined to his basement.
But the 25-year-old Army veteran from Poplar Grove showed no signs of that or other aspects of his recent struggles Monday while at the Barrington Hills Riding Center.
On the contrary, he was smiling in eager anticipation of the horseback trail ride he was about to take with 44 other veterans being served by Harvard-based BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding.
"I never touched a horse until two months ago," Hedlund said. "That time was very dark. But I realized you can't be down when you're near a horse. Me being here today, I have to thank BraveHearts."
Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president and chief operating officer of BraveHearts, said the concept of helping wounded veterans with horses came from Marge and Dr. Rolf Gunnar of Hinsdale and was put into practice around 2007.
Results -- among those willing to give it a try -- have been amazingly quick and consistent, she said.
"It's not just lives changed but lives saved by horses," Hill-McQueeney said.
The largest agency providing such services in the U.S., BraveHearts worked with 380 veterans last year and saw its number of sessions nearly double from 2012 to 2014.
Maura O'Hagan's balance was so restored by BraveHearts' work with veterans that she stayed on as the program's director.
While deployed in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, the Navy veteran suffered from PTSD as Hedlund later would. Coming from an urban background, it took her 2½ years to contact BraveHearts.
Remembering those early visits still makes her emotional.
"I started feeling myself," O'Hagan said. "The possibility of the future was there."
Her next transformation was in realizing she wanted to help provide the same opportunity for other veterans. Since then, she's worked not only with fellow veterans of America's 21st-century wars but those who fought in Vietnam and didn't have access to such therapy for decades.
"You're learning how to build trust again with the horse," O'Hagan explained. "When you come back from war, you feel like you're entering a whole other world, even though you've been there before."
The basic element of equine therapy is that a horse doesn't require verbal communication but still can't bluffed that everything is OK with someone when it isn't.
"The horse knows the true you," O'Hagan said.
Hedlund says his relationship with horses helped turn around his life.
"This is my cure," he said. "When you get on top of that horse, you feel how the horse is feeling. In all honesty, I think it's for everyone."
BraveHearts volunteer Pat Fasano of Algonquin has been working with horses for 20 years but learned the positive effect they can have on wounded veterans only two years ago.
"I was amazed," he said. "I didn't realize the therapeutic effect it does have. I think the volunteers get just as much out of this as the veterans do."
Former Barrington Hills resident Paddy McKevitt became involved with BraveHearts as director of operations. He suggested the Barrington Hills Riding Center as a location for Monday's trail ride, which the Barrington Hills Park District proved happy to host.
McKevitt said BraveHearts' work with veterans has been so groundbreaking that the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship came to the agency for help in drafting the guidelines for its Equine Services for Heroes program.