VFW Magazine — January 2017
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Gentling Wild Mustangs
Kelly Gibson

Operation Mustang, a free national program offered through BraveHearts in Harvard, Ill., has been helping veterans cope with the physical and mental strain of returning home from war since 2013.

Mitchell Reno is a Texan who grew up riding horses because, “everyone rides horses in Texas.” He joined the Army and served with the 4th Infantry Division — the “Iron Horse” Division — deploying as a team leader to Iraq in 2003 with the 2nd Bn., 8th Inf. Regt., 4th Inf. Div. When Reno left the Army in 2005, he didn’t adjust smoothly to civilian life.

“I had a rough time coming back,” said Reno, a member of Post 6008, in Hewitt, Texas. He drank heavily — “like constantly” — and it took a toll on him. So had the 12 prescription medications he took daily.

“I crossed a line, and I didn’t even see it,” Reno said. “I was drinking in the morning to make it through the day.”

Reno was trying various therapies to treat his post traumatic stress disorder, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a standard psychotherapeutic approach. During his treatments he met Nick Montedo, a Marine Corps veteran and horse-riding instructor at BraveHearts, a 501c3 non-profi t and a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International accredited center located outside of Harvard, Ill. Montedo suggested that Reno try a riding program.

“It was nice being back around horses,” Reno said. “But it was short lived. It didn’t make a big impact until later when I came back.”

BraveHearts started in 2002 as an equine therapy program for children with special needs. One of the organization’s founders, Dr. Rolf M. Gunnar, a Korean War veteran, saw the value in offering equine services to service members. BraveHearts began its veteran-centric programs in 2003.

“Since that time, our program has been very mindful of veterans; who they are and what their needs are,” said Meggan Hill-McQueeney, BraveHearts president and chief operating officer.

In addition to free programs for veterans, BraveHearts also offers retreats for spouses, children and Gold Star families at no charge. BraveHearts has worked with some 545 individual veterans for a total of 10,555 equine sessions since its inception.

Focusing on what the veteran wants is a priority for BraveHearts.

In 2013, the organization added Operation Mustang, which allows veterans to handle wild horses purchased from the state.

“We love getting to the vets who don’t want to leave their homes and are really struggling,” Hill-McQueeney said. “The wild horse is really a draw. Mustangs are very fractious. You can’t touch them. They’ve been transported and removed from their families and what’s familiar.”

Hill-McQueeney likened mustangs to combat vets experiencing PTSD symptoms.

“They are hyper vigilant,” Hill- McQueeney said. “They are aware and fearful. They only know flight or fight. You can’t touch them, halter them, brush them, pick up their feet or saddle them until they trust you.”

RIDING AS AN ALTERNATIVE

Equine therapy is just one option for veterans to pursue while treating PTSD. Formerly known as complementary and alternative medicine, mainstream doctors (including VA) now refer to this form of health care as “complementary and integrative,” according to Dr. Harold Kudler, chief of VA’s mental health services.

“We talk about equine therapy for people with PTSD, and a vet might go on an organized trip where they groom, train and walk with horses,” Dr. Kudler said. “They don’t have to ride them. Other people do trout fishing. [VA] vet centers have been taking veterans on trips to local presentations of the traveling wall, or a smaller scale monument or to Washington D.C.

This has been going on for years. Is that treatment? I think it is.”

Kudler cited one study on acupuncture that showed it could be helpful in treatment of PTSD. He said he has seen this type of “out-of-office” treatment work in his own medical practice.

“It’s certainly our stance in the VA that many people who have PTSD may not be cured but live substantially better lives [through complementary and integrative health care],” Kudler said.

Mitchell Hedlund is proof that, beyond emotional healing, these types of therapies can be physically beneficial.

Hedlund was injured as a result of a rocket-propelled grenade exploding near him in Afghanistan in 2012. Between his wounds and the strain of carrying between “150 to 300 pounds” on his back every day while deployed, he suffers from chronic back pain that keeps him wheelchair-bound most of the time.

“The pain was unbearable,” he said. “On top of that, I was falling over a lot, so I couldn’t be trusted to walk. [Riding] keeps my sanity, but it also helps me get up in the morning. I know my back pain is going to be a lot better after I ride.”

Hedlund’s mom first brought him to BraveHearts in 2015.

“I’d never ridden a horse before,” Hedlund said. “I really was scared.”

Now the former member of Post 1461 rides at least three times per week. Hedlund’s horse is called Mighty, a 5-year-old mustang, which he characterized as “stubborn as heck” and on the smaller side for a male horse.

A self-described “big dude,” Hedlund laughed when he illustrated how odd it looks to have a large man on a small horse.

“It looks funny, but he carries me around like nothing,” Hedlund said.

Hedlund and Reno are roommates, and are going through the process together.

“We both ride,” Hedlund said. “We both do Operation Mustang. We’re both becoming instructors. We’re there to help ourselves but also to help other vets.”

‘THEY GIVE YOU A PURPOSE’

Operation Mustang is how Reno was paired with Booyah, a 21-year-old Blue Roan from Lock Springs, Wyo., with scars covering his body from fighting other stallions—Reno calls him a warrior.

“The horse locked on to me,” Reno said. “The initial factor of it being a wild horse, 1,500 pounds of animal that could kill you, the adrenaline pumps through your body. It brings you into the present, like a slingshot. Your mind can’t be anywhere else.”

Reno’s first experience in the pen with Booyah was intense.

“He couldn’t stop swaying,” Reno said. “He was kicking and thrashing.”

Reno said he was lucky to get to touch him at all, and even then it was just a fingertip only for a moment.

“For mustangs, it’s about pressure and release,” Reno said. “When the pressure is on [Booyah], I have to release and let him process. When I get the result I want, I can tell he is working hard to trust, so I let go and give him a couple of minutes to process.

“It’s so funny because we as humans have the constant pressures of the world. We don’t get a lot of release. Veterans are prideful people, so when the pressure becomes too much, that’s when we get flighty.”

For Reno, this feeling of trust immediately took over. He returned to BraveHearts a couple months later to train Booyah. Everyone said the horse was a lost cause, including the Bureau of Land Management, which called him untouchable.

“I knew training [Booyah], he would have to trust me,” Reno said. “Even if I couldn’t pinpoint it, I knew I was feeling better. I wasn’t living in the past so much, thinking about all the terrible things.”

As of October 2016, Reno had been sober for six months. He’s off 10 of the 12 prescriptions. He spends one week per month at home in Texas, but he’s at BraveHearts the rest of his time, working with horses five to six days per week.

“It’s brought me back from the dead,” Reno said. “Any kind of life I was living— and I see a lot of vets living this life—it’s a hell of a way to live. You’re just trying to survive.”

There are many purposes to the practice of working with a wild horse, but mindfulness is key to success in the pen. Horses teach you to be humble and respectful, Reno said. They teach you about relationships and interacting with people. They give you a purpose.

“Horses read intent,” Hill-McQueeney said. “If you are anxious, the horse knows it. They don’t just feel anxiety; they become that anxiety. In order for the veteran to get the horse to change, they have to change.”

With mustangs, veterans work on changing the way they breathe. They learn how to stay mentally present and adjust their body language.

“The horse is a total reflection of who that person is,” Hill-McQueeney said. “Veterans want to change because they want to help the horse.” She describes the transformation as “instant.”

“It’s something very sacred,” Hill- McQueeney said. “It’s a very intense, telling moment. It takes bravery to go in there. That’s the litmus test; that horse is a lie detector.”

RECLAIMING STRENGTH

In a recent display of the program’s power, 11 BraveHearts veterans traveled from Illinois to Cheyenne, Wyo., to take part in Cheyenne Frontier Days, a weeklong rodeo festival held each year at the end of July. This year, the participants, including Reno, gentled 22 mustangs over the course of 10 days.

A cannon announces the start of each grand entry for the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. Reno said the horses were shifting and spinning, startled by the sudden noise.

“I looked down and thought, ‘Shit, this is going to be bad,’ and just balled up on top of my horse,” Reno said. “It brought me back there. But the horse didn’t budge one bit. He knew he had to be my rock.”

For the duration of the week, Reno and others rode in parades and grand entries, as well as spoke before crowds of thousands.

“I got up and talked without hesitation,” Reno said. “That never would have happened in a million years. I wasn’t even nervous. [BraveHearts] has just really given me my strength back. I have the courage I had before the military, but with wisdom now.”

Equine therapy has given veterans a chance to rebuild themselves.

“Men have tamed the world on horseback,” Reno said. “It’s really a special thing to work with God’s creatures like that. The lessons transcend the round pen. God wants me to live. My family wants me to live. The people who care about me want me to live. I learned all of that from a horse.”

EMAIL kgibson@vfw.org
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