As we near the Fourth of July, there will be talk of fireworks and barbeques, but those aren’t what earned the United States its independence. Our freedom is the result of men and women who serve overseas, and a local non-profit called Bravehearts wants to serve them by having our heroes literally saddle up.
“It’s kinda like I escape, it’s like peace,” said Tyler, a veteran who now spends time on his horse, Samson. Tyler served in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007. “It just kinda lets you kinda forget about everything else that’s going on.”
Braveheart instructor Nicholas Montigo, a fellow Marine himself, has worked with Tyler over the past year inside a Harvard barn, honing his horsemanship.
“He’s come around in every way that you can think possible,” Montigo said.
Because the man who is sitting on Samson’s saddle didn’t just develop riding skills, but a Bravehearts bond.
The non-profit started in 2002 on Maxon Road in Harvard, and since 2007 has become the nation’s largest program to serve military veterans.
“For the most part, we don’t talk about what happened in the service,” Montigo said. “There’s no need. We do, on occasion, if someone wants to bring something up, but mostly [we talk] about horses.”
The former student-turned-instructor says he now has a purpose in life, to give his military brothers the help that riding horses gave to him.
“Horses are like a mirror to your soul,” Montigo said.
For Marshall Wolfe, a Bravehearts instructor who served as a Marine in the 1980’s, that meant seeing a reflection of someone who had, for decades, denied dealing with his own post-military past.
“When I got out, I didn’t want nothing to do with nothing,” he remembers. “I just tried to forget about all that stuff.”
Marshall didn’t seek out help at Bravehearts, but rather found freedom from his feelings in the arena where he first started volunteering nearly four years ago.
“I didn’t think I had a problem until I got out here and saw these guys dealing with what they had to deal with, and it opened up some doors and windows with me, and it gave me the opportunity to start healing myself, inside,” he said.
It’s a journey that more than 700 veterans took part in last year alone.
Bravehearts President Meggan Hill-McQueeney says the healing is all in the horses.
“They respond to how we are, so once we start to slow our breathing down and get more comfortable with them, they immediately return that,” she said. “They just help us be better people. Veterans tell us all the time that horses have not only changed their lives, but changed their lives.”
Bravehearts also has a location in Poplar Grove right off Route 173. All services to all veterans are free.
But, in order to pull of a program of their size, it takes hundreds of volunteers. Volunteer Director Amber Eck says there’s no experience necessary:
“So, once you get started, we’re here to kind of show you the way, so whether you have zero horse experience or tons of horse experience, regardless, we make everyone go through our training to make sure they know the Bravehearts way,” she said.
Bravehearts has training sessions once a month.