By BraveHearts Staff
As COVID brings to light the importance of open discussion about mental health and the need for more available resources, BraveHearts – the largest program in the nation using equine assisted activities and therapies for veterans – will embark on its fourth annual “Trail to Zero” ride in Kentucky and Illinois.
The 20-mile trail rides bring the epidemic of veteran suicide to the forefront of national conversation, 20 veterans and active service members are lost to suicide daily, educating veterans and citizens about the benefits of equine-assisted services as an alternative approach to healing. The Kentucky ride took place at the Kentucky Horse Park and Spy Coast Farm. The Illinois ride will take place privately in Bull Valley, Illinois and will be broadcast as a virtual half- hour-long program.
Meggan Hill-McQueeney, BraveHearts President and COO has ridden in Trail to Zero events since its first rides in 2017. Meggan – born without her right arm – found the physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits in riding horses at a very young age. She has never let her disability hold her back. Now, she is on a larger mission to stem the suicide rate among veterans.
“Now, more than ever before, mental health is being recognized as a critical component of our wellbeing,” she said. “Many men and women who have served our country are struggling. BraveHearts is here to offer a solution through equine assisted services for all those who have had trouble finding relief. While our rides might look a little different this year, we’ll continue to ride 20 miles for the 20 veterans and active service members we lose to suicide every day, until this number is reduced to zero.”
BraveHearts is the largest Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) accredited program in the country that has served thousands of veterans, all at no cost, offering veterans equine services to provide emotional, cognitive, social and physical benefits. Veterans at BraveHearts report benefits including increased self-esteem, self-worth, trust for others and decreased depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and suicidal ideations.
Many of the veterans who work with Brave-Hearts have been relying on its programs to help manage their mental health struggles. During the pandemic, a time of intense stress and uncertainty, to prevent the spread of the virus, many veterans haven’t participated in these programs.
One veteran commented: “It has been 18 days since myself and the other veterans have been able to set foot inside a BraveHearts barn. It has been a hard and difficult situation for us to experience and manage – as that is our “safe place” and saving grace. The closest thing I can compare the feelings of not having the barn to turn to is when I was discharged from the military. The same feelings of loneliness, abandonment, regret, and frustration, are present now without having BraveHearts to turn to as our second home. Without the wisdom and power of the horses I find myself lost again, attempting to go back into my old ways of drinking and using (I have not relapsed or slipped), but I miss the strong support system that comes from BraveHeart and their people and horses. Without the barn it feels like a piece of myself is missing. I feel I have lost my purpose to get up and move most days, and I know I am not the only veteran feeling this way during this time.”
“Most veterans come to the BraveHeart farm in Harvard, Illinois because nothing else has worked for them. It’s often not long before veterans begin to share how the horses saved their lives. Because of this, we know that putting veterans and horses together creates the opportunity for change. When we reach veterans battling suicidal tendencies and ideologies, and let them know they are not alone, that the community cares and nontraditional services help, we do our job,” Meggan added.
Bill Mercurio was one of the 5 veterans who rode in the Trail to Zero pilot ride in 2017. Drafted in 1966 for the Vietnam War, he served with the 20th Engineers Battalion in Pleiku, RVN from 1966-1967. Bill and his wife Nancy began volunteering at BraveHearts in 2016. They quickly became immersed in the veteran program, riding together once a week. Tragically losing their son in 2017, Bill stated that if it were not for BraveHearts, the horses, and his faith, he does not know how he would have been able to get through such a difficult time. Bill rides on the all-veteran drill team and is a PATH Intl. instructor. 2020 will be his fourth year riding in Trail to Zero.
Another participant in this year’s Trail to Zero, Nichelle Wrenn, served in the Air Force from 2008 until 2013. After a chance meeting with a BraveHearts instructor in 2017, she became hooked on the camaraderie and dedication shown by the BraveHearts horses, veterans, volunteers, and staff. As one of the youngest veterans and growing horsewomen, she enjoys her time off the horse, leading in lessons or watching riders and instructors, almost as much as riding.
Experiencing so many veterans who are open and honest about their mental health struggles and herself having a very stressful career in security with the federal government led her to get serious about her own anxiety. Still very much learning about horses and her own struggles with mental health, she hopes to destigmatize mental health services for veterans and non-veterans alike.
Kentucky’s Trail to Zero took place during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month on September 25, 2020 adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. The Illinois’ Trail to Zero took place as a virtual event on October 11, 2020. This year, BraveHearts is proud to partner with Equitana USA. Join the call to action by becoming a “Trail to Zero Hero”. Complete 20 miles walking, running, biking or even 20 jumping jacks or 20 loads of laundry. Post a photo on social media and tag #TrailtoZEROHero to raise awareness for military suicide prevention