The power of the horse to heal the human spirit is a realization made by anyone who has had the privilege to experience the connection with this amazing animal. Dr. Nancy O’Reilly experienced it for herself and recently met and interviewed Meggan Hill-McQueeney, the COO of BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center, located in near Chicago, Illinois.
BraveHearts’ mission is “Bringing hope, joy and unlimited possibilities through the healing power of the horse.”
BraveHearts is the largest equine-assisted program in the country. It helps the greatest numbers of veterans and also serves hundreds of children from two-years-old through adulthood and into hospice care, including various diagnoses, such as autism, paraplegic conditions and a full range of physical and mental health conditions all of which benefit from therapy with horses. Watch this feature from NBC affiliate, Channel 13 on U-Tube.
The Miracle Cure that Started BraveHearts
Marge Tautkus Gunnar attributes her “statistical cure” from ovarian cancer largely to her connection to her beloved Lipizzan stallion, “Max.” One day when she entered his stall, he seemed to ask where she had been. She threw her arms around his neck and he responded by wrapping his neck around hers and squeezing. This powerful emotional bond with Max gave Marge the purpose she needed to survive cancer and, six years later, to enable others to feel the healing and strength she received from Max.
She volunteered at a therapeutic riding center and saw for herself the life-changing effects: children talked for the first time, autistic children became more focused, and how people confined to wheelchairs looked down with confidence from a horse. She felt this was the true reason God had brought beautiful horses into her life and helped her survive a catastrophic illness.
On this act of faith, she founded BraveHearts in 2003, with no property or horses. It became a 501c3, non-profit corporation in 2004 and has grown ever since into the premier riding center, continually searching for more ways to help people heal, grow, learn and find peace through working with horses.
Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies at BraveHearts
When Meggan Hill-McQueeney joined BraveHearts in 2010, she brought with her a Master Level Instructor Certification by the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH). Meggan explains the various benefits of working with a horse in terms of either “hippotherapy”or “therapeutic riding.” Both have similar benefits, but hippotherapy is used by a licensed therapist to help the client improve her ability to function in every day life, while therapeutic riding has more recreational and competitive goals.
Meggan says that a horse provides a multi-dimensional movement: forward to back, side to side and rotational movement that makes it an excellent tool to increase a person’s core strength, control their body, balance and mid-line orientation. It also improves muscle-tone and respiratory function. In fact, riding a horse simulates human ambulation. Even if a person cannot walk, they can develop the muscle tone through riding. Of course, when a rider begins to feel confident on a horse, it increases feelings of independence and self-confidence. Even communication skills can be improved on a horse. Listen to this clip from Meggan’s interview with Dr. Nancy.
Meggan is also a Special Olympics coach and helps Bravehearts host the equine Special Olympics tournament, where mentally challenged participants are able to compete in front of thousands of people every year.
Serving Veterans and Their Families
BraveHearts works with VA hospitals from all over the country, providing free therapy to veterans and their families. Veterans benefit from doing everything associated with horses. They work with a horse in a round pen and learn from the horse’s attitude toward them if they are communicating agitation associated with PTSD or some other emotion they aren’t aware of.
There are veteran drill teams that perform in horse shows throughout the country.Even the farm has a calming effect on veterans and their families. BraveHearts hosts retreats for families, carriage riding for those who cannot ride horseback and other services. Many veterans return to Bravehearts as volunteers and work in the barns and do other work to support the work with horses.
Ways to Support Bravehearts
Working with horses is therapeutic for both the volunteers and the students. Just one horse takes a lot of support. BraveHearts continues to add horses to their stables and programs to help people heal and develop.
They recently purchased mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management and added proofing a horse to their curriculum. Bringing a horse from a wild state to bridle and saddle provides a learning experience for the horse and the person learning to train it.
Donations to Bravehearts are tax deductible. Visit their website and see the many ways you can help.