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‘It’s just me and the horse’: How mustangs help hurting veterans heal

May 30, 2016

The stallion kicked out, nostrils flaring. In the ring, it faced off against a 32-year-old former infantryman.

Months ago, Mitchell Reno was sitting in a hotel room with half a gallon of vodka and dark plans. But this April afternoon found him serenely still as a stallion kicked up sawdust in an arena in Poplar Grove in northern Illinois. Slashes across the horse’s heaving belly and back revealed fights in the Wyoming wild.

The horse zeroed in on Reno, who wrestles with post-traumatic stress disorder and knows a thing or two about scars, the kind you can see and the kind you can’t.

“Whenever I get in the ring, it’s just me and the horse,” said Reno, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. “Nothing else matters.”

An explosion in Iraq left Reno with a traumatic brain injury, ending the Texas native’s military career.

Mustangs help him in a way, he said, that years of therapy, medication and turning to alcohol couldn’t.

Reno and the mustangs are part of BraveHearts, the country’s largest free equine-assisted services program for veterans, says Meggan Hill-McQueeney, BraveHearts president.

Many veterans arrive at BraveHearts after trying medication and therapy. The program provides work and hope for vets who are looking for purpose — a goal to work toward.

Veterans gentle the stallions — themselves traumatized by being relocated — acclimating them to things like saddles and halters.

“The veteran doesn’t want to change because of what I’m telling them,” said Patrick McKevitt, BraveHearts’ director of operations. “They want to change because you’re going to help the horse. And the horse ends up helping you.”

Reno is sober now. He can sleep at night. But not everything is perfect — it’s hard to be away from his wife and the kids whose grinning faces fill his iPhone photo stream.

The horses, though, make “life worth living,” he says.

BraveHearts, serving soldiers since 2007, works with the federal Bureau of Land Management to corral wild horses from Wyoming in an effort to curb population growth. Veterans work with the horses once they arrive in Illinois, and McKevitt and Hill-McQueeney help them train.

McKevitt and Hill-McQueeney pull people “right out of the gutter,” says Reno.

The gutter has been a familiar place for Reno.

Earlier this year, he was in a hotel room with the half-gallon of vodka, making a noose out of parachute cord.

He’d already used the vodka to swallow his wedding ring. He’d tossed his cross necklace into the Chicago River.

The suicide attempt capped rocky years when he was arrested for assault, divorced twice and often drunk.

“I came back, and I hated myself,” he said. “The pills didn’t fix anything. The booze just hid the feelings of guilt.”

Reno first came to BraveHearts two years ago while at the PTSD program at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago.

He met the horses, which reminded him of the three he had growing up, but that bright spot barely pushed back struggles that were years in the making. He found his way back to booze and eventually the hotel room.

Reno’s wife, Corinne, remembers the time as one of many when she couldn’t reach him. She’d call friends, hospitals, the VA.

Then she called McKevitt.

McKevitt summoned Reno back to BraveHearts.

Reno said he finds calm with the tense, distrustful animals and knows he can help.

“I have a lot of the same feelings,” he said.

The idea of working with stallions almost seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best animals for veterans seeking stability be gentle and reliable?

Hill-McQueeney has found it’s the wild ones.

Mustangs don’t trust humans, said Steve Mantle, who runs a wild horse adoption facility in Wheatland, Wyo.

“They don’t want anything from you. They were fine on their own,” said Mantle, who shared his mustang-training techniques last year at BraveHearts.

“The vets maybe come from that same position of needing to trust someone but not sure they can,” he added. “So the two meld together.”

Reno readily acknowledges that people who knew him years ago would not recognize him today — he’s chosen a calmer life and talks openly about his feelings.

“I’m starting to have a little bit of patience for myself,” he said. “I haven’t had a life until recently, honestly. Not any kind of life that anybody would want.”

Working with horses seems to be working for Reno, and many advocates hope that bringing veterans to stables will be as common a treatment for PTSD as medications and therapies offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Back in the arena, McKevitt’s soft, Irish brogue encouraged Reno. Gentle, gentle, he repeated. Bring your hand down, but just so. Don’t get too close. You’re in the strike zone. Watch his left hoof.

“He’s kind of like you,” McKevitt said. “He’s a tornado.”

McKevitt instructed Reno how to move a rod with a silver sack tied to the end, just so, to touch the horse from afar.

The idea is that it’s like a hand, helping the mustang adjust. To learn trust.

Reno’s slow, calm movements toward the horse turned the arena so still that the only sounds were buzzing fluorescent lights.

Two steps forward, one step back. A delicate dance of hoofs and work boots.

After inching close enough to touch Boo-Yah’s cheek — a successful moment with a stallion who’d been haltered only the day before — Reno climbed the fence, grinning.

“You get a sense of peace like no pill they could put down your throat,” he said. “I’m starting to look forward to the next 20 years of my life.”

Reno hopes to return to his family in Texas and help other veterans into the saddle. It helps them, he said, “walk out with a little bit of hope and strength.”

Mary Apper, 35, also knows how the bond with horses soothes.

After returning from a Navy deployment to Afghanistan, Apper said, the only solace she found from wrestling with PTSD and rage was her 29-year-old quarter horse, Satin.

On the worst nights, she slept in Satin’s stall.

“She was literally the only thing that could melt my anger,” said the damage controlman, who is on active duty. “My mom always said that my love for her was stronger than my anger for what I’ve been through.”

Horses, medical and animal experts say, force calm.

“They have a level of hypervigilance,” said Dr. Anthony Peterson, section chief of the PTSD program at Lovell. “So if you have a population of individuals with PTSD who themselves carry a level of nervousness or anxiety on a day-to-day basis, when they interact with the animals, it really challenges them.”

Veteran Nicholas Montijo, 28, greets the busload of Milwaukee veterans arriving each Tuesday. BraveHearts served more than 500 veterans in 2015.

Before coming to BraveHearts, Montijo’s mind was buzzing with replays of the chaotic calls he received as a radio operator in Afghanistan.

“I relive a lot of that stuff,” he said. “It goes through my brain like a big old recording.”

His first deployment, he remembers, was fun — traveling to exotic ports, experiencing different cultures. But the second, to Afghanistan, was haunting.

He returned a man without purpose — broken and silent.

“You couldn’t get me to talk,” he said.

Now, his colleagues joke, that’s not a problem.

Showing a guest around the ranch, pointing out horses and their quirks — this one’s pals with the donkeys, this one thinks he’s getting fed soon — it was hard to believe he was ever anything but a friendly greeter and natural leader.

Riding gave him purpose, a goal, a bond.

Apper, who is stationed at nearby Naval Station Great Lakes, is teaching Montijo to be a riding instructor for other veterans.

Barking out orders, Apper directed a riding group trotting single file on a recent afternoon. Her clipped, confident tone revealed her drill-instructor background.

When her beloved horse, Satin, had to be put down last August, her mother flew out and “pretty much forced me to come out here,” Apper said of BraveHearts.

Devastated, she hesitated to be near horses again. But during that visit, someone told her about a filly needing work.

“I just got this ridiculous feeling,” she said. “And I realized, ‘Oh, my God, I’m happy.'”

A few months ago, she was surprised by streamers and balloons affixed to a stall with the news that BraveHearts was giving her CC, a beautiful gray mare with white eyelashes.

When Apper walks to her pasture, the horse’s head bobs up immediately, nose lifted to nuzzle.

“This little filly saved my life,” she said.

Alison Bowen writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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