The holidays can be especially hard for people who could use professional help. But, finding the right help can be tricky. As WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, for some in Northern Illinois, it’s not so much finding the right human help, as it is finding the right horse.
“There you go cowgirl,” instructs BraveHearts Director of Operations, Paddy McKevitt. On this day, he’s working with 9 year old Audrey Boyer. “I’ve been riding since I was 5.” “Every person that comes in here has a story,” says McKevitt. “And every single one of them is magical.” “Nice and slow. Come on Chill.” We asked Audrey’s mother Christina what kind of help they were seeking for their daughter.” She has ADHD, and OCD, and high anxiety. And, sometimes can have some rage.” Christina says years of traditional therapy were not working. They discovered BraveHearts in June. “Each time we visited, I used to joke that it was something in the air, because we would leave laughing and joking and having lots of fun.” ”Super job Audrey.” “They just make me feel good.” Paddy himself was helped by the horses he cares for. “I know firsthand the healing power of a horse. Hey Wyatt. I see the kindness in his eyes when he’s helping other people. This horse, he means so much to me.”
Paddy rescued his horse Wyatt from a previous owner out West, about eight years ago. He clearly remembers the day they met. “And he started cracking the whip by him and the horse was just about to melt. So, I had to turn and go away because I could tell the guy had been really abusive to the horse.” Paddy may have saved Wyatt’s life. He knows Wyatt saved his. “I got so low at one point I didn’t think I was gonna make it. The only thing that inspired me to go on was that I wanted to make that horse feel better.” Horses-saving-people is how BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding Facilities got started in 2001. Marge Gunner credits her own horse with saving her from a serious cancer scare. She and her husband, Dr. Rolf Gunner, now work tirelessly to keep BraveHearts’ two facilities afloat.
McKevitt is from Northern Ireland and came to the U.S. as a young man to work with horses. He was asked to volunteer at BraveHearts during a weekend workshop with women who were victims of military sexual trauma. It changed the course of his life. He sold his farm to work for BraveHearts full time. “Swing your right leg over.” One of the women Paddy works with is Kati Beck who joined the Air Force at age 19. She was sexually assaulted by two fellow airmen. “They took me to an abandoned house. And they poured gasoline on me and they tried to light me on fire if I didn’t do everything that they said. And so for the next 24 hours I was raped multiple times. And then I was too afraid to report it.”
Kati was medically retired in 2009 for post traumatic stress disorder and treatment resistant depression. “Great Katie, that’s great.” A year-and-a-half later, Kati is a peer to peer counselor, working with other military sexual assault victims, female and male. “It’s not like one size fits all when it comes to therapy. So, I thought I would try out horses.” One of BraveHeart’s newest programs is adopting wild mustangs. Here, traditional methods of “breaking” horses do not exist. Paddy prefers to “gentle” them, and is among a growing number of so-called horse whisperers.
“Great job Ryan, perfect!” Ryan Ohrmundt is third generation military, who eagerly enlisted post 9-11. He was assigned to the former Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which he says made them, “sitting targets.” “I’ve seen Ryan grow so much here,” says Paddy. Ryan himself is amazed at his progress. “I never could have achieved what I’m doing right now by myself in this lifetime. Oh my gosh, I need them far more than they need me.” Audrey’s Mom Christina is also extremely grateful for how well the BraveHearts staff has helped her child. “It has truly changed our lives for the better. We knew our daughter was a phenomenal little girl. But, the world is getting to see that our daughter is a phenomenal little girl.” Kati Beck feels the same way. “I would do anything for BraveHearts. They’ve saved me.” Paddy says their doors are always open wide. “Come out and be a part of it. I can guarantee it will enrich your life.” Steve Sanders, WGN News.”
There are two BraveHearts locations, one in Harvard and one in Poplar Grove. BraveHearts is non-profit and relies on the generosity of donors for all programs. In the spirit of giving this holiday season, please share this story and enjoy other heartwarming stories at the link below.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photographer / Editor Steve Scheuer also contributed to this report.