Marge Gunnar underwent months of chemotherapy to beat ovarian cancer, but her words suggest the true healing began in a horse barn. One day in 1993, when Gunnar was feeling particularly depressed during her treatment, she went to visit her Lipizzan stallion, Max.
"When I entered Max’s stall, he looked at me with large soft eyes that seemed to question ‘Where have you been?’ I threw my arms around his neck, buried my face in his mane and sobbed," Gunnar says. "I felt that connection between us was so powerful, I knew that Max was one of the reasons I had to get well."
That encounter planted the seeds for BraveHearts, the Illinois-based nonprofit Gunnar founded in the early 2000s that fosters healing interactions with horses. Her story appears on the group's website, and it’s just one of many instances that demonstrate the healing power of horses.
The Iraq War began right as the organization was finding its footing, and it has since provided immeasurable comfort to veterans returning from service in the Middle East. Its free-of-charge program for veterans, Operation Mustang, connects them with horses and also stages rides to raise awareness about veteran suicide.
"I came back, and I hated myself," Mitchell Reno told the Chicago Tribune, talking about his return from Iraq and Afghanistan, following a traumatic brain injury. "The pills didn't fix anything. The booze just hid the feelings of guilt."
Now sober and looking forward to returning to his family in Texas upon completion of the equine program, Reno credits BraveHearts with his recovery. "You get a sense of peace like no pill they could put down your throat. I'm starting to look forward to the next 20 years of my life," he reflected.
Veterans face perilous odds in coping with their war experiences. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 vets die by suicide each day, and a BraveHearts documentary notes one in 14 has a substance abuse disorder.
"You see a lot of stuff over there. You know, you kind of lock it away and compartmentalize it," says one veteran who served in detainee ops in Afghanistan. "There's been nothing on this Earth that I've found—no medication, no psychiatrist, psychologist, program—that comes anywhere close to the feeling I get with horses."