Veterans Open Up About the Power of Horses in the Fight Against PTSD: 'A Whole Other Level of Healing'

Horses help vets struggling with debilitating mental health issues when other methods have failed, says Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president of BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding Center in Illinois

Bill Mercurio- Getting ready for Drill Team-Harvard, IL. 2021
Bill Mercurio, an instructor at BraveHearts in Harvard, Ill. Photo: Norfleet/Courtesy of Bravehearts

U.S. Air Force veteran Angie Colella had tried just about everything to stop post-traumatic stress disorder from overtaking her life when she stepped into the round pen at the BraveHearts farm in Harvard, Ill., in 2017, with a Mustang that had recently been in the wild.

Colella is just one of hundreds of vets who have been helped by programs like the one offered at BraveHearts, the largest equine therapy program in the country for active and reserve duty service members and veterans alike.

"I had never done anything as far as horsemanship and all of a sudden I'm in this round pen with a 1,000-lb. animal that could do great damage," Colella, 52, tells PEOPLE for this week's issue.

"I was nervous for sure," says the Illinois resident, who enlisted in 1989, just before the start of the Gulf War. "I was like, 'What am I going to do with this horse?'"

Miracles, as it turns out — and ones that help her manage the triggers that bring on vivid flashbacks and force her to relive horrors from the past all over again.

"You learn to ground yourself and be aware of where you really are," she says. "You think, 'I'm here. I'm in this office. I'm safe. The people who walk in the door behind me are not coming to attack me.'"

Getting her horse to trust her — and making the gigantic animal trot, change direction, slow down and walk right next to her with his nose on her shoulder — gave her a sense of accomplishment.

"I couldn't believe I had actually done it," she says. "It was just an amazing feeling of accomplishment, because if I can do that, if I can move this animal around and have him trust me and depend on me, then what can't I do in life?"

Started in northern Illinois in 2002 by the late Dr. Rolf Gunner and his wife, Marge Gunnar, whose stallion, Max, helped her through the worst of a cancer diagnosis, BraveHearts offers free therapy to veterans, helping them overcome debilitating mental health issues ranging from PTSD to drug and alcohol abuse.

In 2010, Meggan Hill-McQueeney — who credits the magnificent animals with helping her navigate the world as a congenital amputee with no right arm — took over the program, located in Harvard and Poplar Grove.

at BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 in Harvard.
Meggan Hill-McQueeney of BraveHearts. Matthew Apgar

When she first started working with the horses there, "I heard people say they might not be here had it not been for a horse," she says. "That was just a whole other level of healing I didn't know horses were capable of."

"God designed horses to be extra special," she adds.

For more on how BraveHearts is helping veterans overcome PTSD and other mental health issues, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Concerned when she learned that vets are dying by suicide in record numbers —according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die by suicide each day — Hill-McQueeney started the Trail to Zero Ride to End Veteran Suicide in 2017.

Courtesy of Bravehearts
BraveHearts' Trail to Zero ride in N.Y.C. on Oct. 1, 2022. Courtesy of Bravehearts

"We want to bring the number of veteran suicides down to zero," says Hill-McQueeney, whose parents got her riding at 3 to teach her how to operate with one arm in a two-arm world.

Each year, BraveHearts instructors and participants ride 20 miles through cities across the country to spread word about the silent and often forgotten pain veterans suffer and that help is out there.

"They are an incredible team," says Hill-McQueeney about the "selfless staffers and volunteers who have been with me for over a decade."

Each of the 20 miles they ride is dedicated to each of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day. Their most recent ride was on Saturday in St. Louis, Mo.

Horse therapy is effective — sometimes when other methods don't work. According to the BraveHearts' website, 70 percent of vets who work with them regain trust in others, while 83 percent have reduced anxiety.

That trust has a ripple effect with vets, says Hill-McQueeney. "They think, 'Okay, I can trust the horse, so now I can trust the person who put me with the horse. Then maybe there's somebody else at the barn I can trust.'"

"They're just such true, empathetic creatures to the core that they really know their work well," she adds. "They know the job at hand, I have no doubt about that."

Neither does Bill Mercurio, BraveHearts' Veteran Relations Coordinator, who admits he wasn't much of a horse person when he first started working with the organization.

"I was a Chicago boy," says the 79-year-old Vietnam vet. "My riding started on the elevated train."

But in 2015, when his wife, Nancy, now 72, asked him to volunteer with her at BraveHearts in Harvard, he was game.

Soon after, he was on his way to becoming a certified therapeutic riding instructor, helping vets struggling with dark flashbacks and deep-seated emotional wounds from witnessing bloodshed in combat or a fellow vet's suicide.

"I saw veterans with really difficult diagnoses: traumatic brain injuries, severe PTSD, high anxiety, suicidal tendencies, alcohol abuse and any number of other issues," he says.

"I saw how being around the horses, being on the horses and communicating with the horses literally changed their lives," he continues.

The majestic but soft-hearted horses he'd seen calm so many anxious vets at the BraveHearts farm ended up saving him when his 28-year-old son died of a fentanyl overdose. "Nancy went to wake him up and he was gone," he says.

"I had some really bad feelings," he adds. "I was brutally angry."

"Guilt begins to fester and all the things you should have, could have, would've done — they take a hold of you," he continues. "It's a grim thing. And I could see myself where these other veterans had been due to their circumstances."

RELATED VIDEO: Veteran Reacts to Donation Raised For His Broken Scooter

So he and his wife turned to the same horses he was working with to teach other vets how to deal with their own strong emotions.

"We have a strong faith," he explains, "so I don't want to discount that." But by spending time at the farm with the horses, "we were able to just kind of let our emotions go. And the horses were just incredible. They have a kind of empathy."

Hill-McQueeney is happy the horses are able to help vets such as Colella, Mercurio and so many more.

She is also grateful to the horses: "I call them angels in fur," she says, "for all that they are able to do."

For confidential support, vets and loved ones can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 or text 838255.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.

Related Articles