Stateline non-profit helps veterans heal through horse therapy

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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — For most of us, the Fourth of July means fireworks and barbeques. But those aren’t what earned us independence.

Our freedom is the result of those men and women who serve. Now, a local non-profit wants to give back by having our heroes saddle up.

“Bravehearts is kind of a unique place there’s so much available to the veteran, veteran family member, person that comes in through the door,” said Nicholas Montijo of Bravehearts.

It’s a special place, Tyler Waters walked into almost 4 years ago.

“I was in the Marines from 2003-2007 and deployed to Iraq twice as an infantryman. [When I] got home I tried to bury everything and move on,” said Waters.

“My first deployment we were in a lot of combat and you don’t really have time to grieve or process any of it so and you get home and you don’t want to deal with it so you push it to the side and unfortunately that doesn’t work it eventually came back with a vengeance pretty much,” he added.

Waters was dealing with PTSD when his therapist suggested he go to Bravehearts to seek a different type of therapy.

“As soon as I got here it was like this is where I need to be this is what I need to do. So, I ended up starting lessons riding twice a week and coming to cowboy camp/operation mustang and just fell in love,” said Waters.

Nicholas Montijo is the veteran advancement coordinator at Bravehearts. He says the non-profit was founded by Marge and Dr. Rolf Gunnar in 2002. In 2007, Dr. Gunnar, a veteran himself, dveloped the riding program for veterans.

“It was his mission that a veteran will never pay for anything at Bravehearts,” Montijo said. “When you come into the door at Bravehearts and you find out what do you want to do here, do you want to ride horses, do you want to volunteer, do you want to do this….We’ll sit down with someone and explain what all these different steps are and what it all means and we’ll work on getting them there.”

Programs are often led by fellow veterans but the key to Braveheart’s success is the bond and trust created between man and horse.

“These horses are probably one in 10,000 horses they’re kind they’re gentle,” Montijo described.

“It’s a pretty surreal feeling when you get that bond and you can sit on a horse you ride a lot and feel their heartbeat and they’re responding from the very minor direction from you. You get so in tune with each other words can’t describe it you have to feel it and once you feel it you can’t get enough of it,” Waters said.

“Being around the horses has really given me the escape where I can just breathe again and just live in the moment and not have any outside influences or intrusive memories it allows me to get the quietness throughout the day when I’m with the horse,” he added.

“Being able to open up and be vulnerable, which is hard for a lot of us veterans because being vulnerable can be dangerous. So, being vulnerable on a horse and knowing he’s got your back is a pretty great feeling.”

Waters says Bravehearts has made such a positive impact on his life that he wants to pay it forward.

“[I’m] currently going through the process to get certified as a riding instructor so I can hopefully help someone like this place has helped me. I think it’s an unconventional type of therapy but it’s extremely rewarding and it really works and if I can reach out to someone and get through one guy and get a smile on his face for an hour it’s worth it,” Waters added.

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