Monday, Jul 16, 2018

Horses healing humans in Harvard

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Jennifer Vlahos from the Midwest Renegades performs at the third annual Heroes on Horseback show June 4 at BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Education Center.

There’s a new doctor in town.

Founded as a nonprofit organization by Marge Gunnar in 2003, BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center in Harvard provides therapeutic horseback riding to children and adults with special needs. The Premier Accredited Center brings in around 100 people every week. These people participate in restorative riding, carriage driving, continuing education and hippotherapy – a treatment strategy that incorporates a horse in physical, occupational or speech-language therapy.

BraveHeart President and Chief Operating Officer Meggan Hill-McQueeney, who has been involved with hippotherapy since 1994, said she has become ‘hooked’ on horse healing techniques. She believes BraveHearts is surrounded by love, compassion and energy.

“[Our mission is to bring] hope, joy and unlimited possibilities through the healing power of the horse,” she said.

BraveHearts, open to the public, also offers a riding and carriage-driving program that assists wounded military members.

On June 4, more than 40 veterans participated in the third annual Heroes on Horseback horse show. They competed in 11 classes such as walk-trot equitation and a phone book race, in an attempt to win ribbons and the first-place prize – a BraveHearts belt buckle. More than 200 people attended.

“The recent Heroes on Horseback horse show was a huge hit,” said Hill-McQueeney.

“Veterans were able to showcase their skills all day long by completing patterns and railwork on horseback, [in addition to] some timed events.”

The event, like many others BraveHearts hosts, involved support from organizations in the community.

Bull Valley’s Midwest Renegades Drill Team provided the entertainment for half-time show.

“Some of the most rewarding parts [of being there] were talking to the veterans after,” said Jennifer Vlahos, who runs the Midwest Renegades with her mother, Bev. “They said, ‘You made me cry.’”

Vlahos and her horse, Outlaw, performed a “liberty” stunt in the ring, which demonstrated using different cues to communicate with a horse without a bridle or saddle.

The Midwest Renegades plan to donate the proceeds from a raffle at its upcoming Our World of Horses show Saturday, July 21, at the McHenry County Fairgrounds to BraveHearts.

“We want to let [BraveHearts] know we appreciate what they do,” Vlahos said.

BraveHearts’ programs allow people with special needs to adapt as necessary to therapeutic riding while also becoming as independent as possible — something Program Director Sarah Newland said is the main goal of the organization.

The 22 horses and two demure donkeys that call the center home make gaining such independence a reality. These big-hearted animals encourage people to conquer fears while enabling them to master a new hobby at the same time.

People like Martin Burnidge, 16, Hampshire, find renewed confidence working with the horses. Burnidge was born with congenital hypotonia, a condition that can lead to developmental defects in children.

“[But] he’s the only one in his family who can ride a horse,” said Martin’s father, Lane.

“The teachers here are great. They know which horse to match up with which riders and show that you can learn to ride even if you have something [physically] wrong with you.”

“My favorite horse is Boone,” said Burnidge, who is currently undertaking a 4-H project to create a horse coloring book. “I like going with the horses to the horse show. [And] I clean up when they poop,” he added, proudly.

BraveHearts also offers drill team performances, trail rides, foundation horsemanship classes, summer camps, family days, weekend retreats for veterans and year-round events. Celebrity guest Betty White will attend the annual fundraiser Saturday, Aug. 18. The facility also will host the Special Olympics Oct. 27 and 28. Volunteers and donations are always appreciated.

While all involved in the BraveHearts community are heroes in their own right, it is the hooved heroes who truly work the magic.

“We have some really special horses. These therapy horses come from our large drafts all the way down to our mini donkey ... regardless of their size, therapy horses continually make soulful connections with people that continue to amaze us,” said Hill-McQueeney.

“When you see a rider take their first steps, hear their first words, see their smiles of accomplishment for controlling a 1,000-pound animal with their can-do-it spirit – [these things are forever] etched in your mind. At that moment you can begin to understand the magnitude and potential power of a horse.”

For information, or to volunteer, call 815-943-8226 or email