Saturday, May 27, 2017

Veteran becomes therapeutic riding instructor

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U.S. Marine Cpl. Nicholas Montijo, the first Wounded Warrior nationally to begin as a client and then earn a certification in therapeutic riding instruction leads horse Hank in the pasture before an instructional class with other wounded veterans.HML PHOTO BY TRICIA CARZOLI

For U.S. Marine Cpl. Nicholas Montijo, Milwaukee, BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center, 7319 Maxon Road, provided an opportunity for this wounded veteran to canter out of the darkness when he once felt all hope was lost.

“This whole experience has been amazing,” said Montijo, an Afghanistan veteran who suffered a back injury and battles post-traumatic stress disorder. As a participant in the therapeutic riding program, Montijo saw so many benefits that he desired to become an instructor so he could support other veterans.

“The first time I came out to BraveHearts [while under the care of the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee], my paperwork wasn’t filled out, and I needed to stay back and just groom the horses,” said Montijo, who was becoming increasingly reclusive – often spending months alone – since his return home after two deployments.

But soon he was riding and learning from the horses.

“I was not living life, and I was on a lot of medication. The horses – and this program – really brought me out of my shell. I was jumpy and tense – and the horses can pick up on that,” Montijo said. He explained how he worked on creating a sense of peace so that he could have a good relationship with the horses. If he were tense, the horses could sense it; so, he strived to remain calm and more relaxed.

And as his relationship with the horses grew, Montijo decided that it was time to help others.

“I just got so much out of this program,” he said. “It would mean everything to me to impact just one veteran – to know that I helped one, that would make this all worth it. But, my goal is to touch as many veterans as possible.

“There were many dark days where everything was too much. But, I came out here to work with the horses and it gave me a sense of purpose and the will to go on. I started to train and study for the PATH [Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship] International test and completed the online courses, the written tests, 25 training hours and day courses in a little more than a year.”

PATH International services individuals with special needs – including veterans, providing equine-assisted activities and therapies. There are more than 4,200 certified instructors. Montijo is the first Wounded Warrior to have participated in and benefitted from this program and then subsequently become an instructor.

Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president and chief operating officer at BraveHearts, said it often took three or more years to complete this program – but Montijo excelled.

“Nicholas is a smart, observant, kind, compassionate man who is a great listener,” Hill-McQueeney said of Montijo. “He has done in a little over a year what takes most people a couple of years.

“He is great with the horses and with people – which makes him a great asset to our team,” she continued.

Montijo comes to the farm several times a week – embracing the hour-long commute because of the horses, the people and the peace.

One of his favorite times to serve is when the veterans come from Milwaukee. He travels down from the VA Hospital with them and talks about his experiences. It is an opportunity for Montijo to identify with the veterans and speak firsthand about the benefits of therapeutic riding.

“My family is really supportive of this – I think they are really happy, because they know just how far I have come – I have a purpose,” Montijo said. “I want other veterans to have the same peace I found here. I have some amazing role models.

“I am so thankful for the program here at BraveHearts. Meggan is an inspiring person and out of this world. She is amazing. Jessica [Lindquist] has been a mentor and teacher and helped me out with barn knowledge. And Paddy McKevitt is just such a great instructor in all the aspects of horses and horse training. I just want to thank everyone there.”

Those role models who changed the course of Montijo’s life will impact so many more – those lives that Montijo will now touch.

“We look forward to all Nicholas has to offer here at BraveHearts – his hard work, dedication and compassion will have a great impact on so many – particularly those who have been in similar situations,” Hill-McQueeney said.