'It has changed my whole perspective': Veterans find peace, companionship on horseback
After 13 surgeries on her left knee, and possibly having to face a 14th, Navy veteran Michelle Arnier has endured some extremely difficult times over the last several years.
But in the last five months, she's found something that has helped her immensely in tackling the challenge: the horse-riding program for veterans offered by the therapeutic riding center BraveHearts.
Connecting with other veterans who understand one another effortlessly and spending time with horses has been incredibly healing for Arnier.
"Literally, it has changed my whole perspective," the Crystal Lake resident said. "Riding, it's beautiful. It's so peaceful when you get on a horse, it seems like everything goes away."
Arnier was among nearly 50 veterans who participated Thursday in BraveHearts' special riding event hosted by the Barrington Hills Park District at its riding center on Bateman Road.
The day included a horseback ride through the adjacent trails within the Forest Preserves of Cook County, followed by lunch and socializing.
PK Johnson, a member of the Riding Club of Barrington Hills, helped lead the group along the trails. Despite dire rainy weather predictions, "Mother Earth was amazing," she said. "It stopped raining just as we mounted."
Barrington Hills Park District Board President Dennis Kelly was hard at work all day, cooking burgers on the grill. The meal's sides were provided by BraveHearts volunteers Mike and Anne Harrington of Barrington Hills.
BraveHearts says it provides the largest equine-based program in the nation for military veterans, who get services for free. The nonprofit, which has locations in Harvard and Poplar Grove. also offers services to children and adults.
This is the fifth year that the park district partnered with BraveHearts to host an event for veterans, and the first time it did so on Veterans Day, Kelly said.
"We are happy to be able to do it," he said. "Usually we do it in September because of the weather, but it all depends on BraveHearts' schedule."
Last year's special event was held on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so this year "we were anxious to get back on the saddle," said Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president of BraveHearts.
The nonprofit brought 16 therapy horses -- about a third of its overall stock -- including quarter horses, mustangs and draft horses. "They are phenomenal horses. They are very confident in their jobs and they definitely love their jobs," Hill-McQueeney said. "All are hand-selected, and we do a lot of conditioning and training with our horses."
Therapeutic riding is all about the calming, positive effect that horses -- which are great at reading energy and mood -- have on humans, Hill-McQueeney said.
"First and foremost, they create a mindful space. Anything that happened yesterday or is going to happen tomorrow doesn't matter -- there is no room for depression and anxiety," she said.
She said horsemanship teaches people important skills for everyday life: mindfulness, clarity, awareness, softness, and displaying good, consistent leadership.
Elburn resident Ben Jalove, a Marine Corps veteran, said connecting with BraveHearts two years ago has changed his life.
In his fellow veterans who get services at BraveHearts, he's found a second family he can turn to for support, he said.
Most importantly, horse riding has helped him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder and gave him the confidence to tackle fatherhood and be a role model for his two little daughters.
"I can't tell you in words what a horse does for an individual," he said. "People have to be able to be with a horse to feel that."