Finding Relief from TBI in Horses

By Jennifer Ball

TBI relief in horses

Mitchell Reno found relief in working with horses. The experience of a wild horse seemed to parallel his experience as a soldier.

Mitchell Reno, a soldier with TBI, found comfort in recreational therapy, specifically working with horses, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday. We see time and time again that recreational therapy can help people through the tough times. In our story of Kevin from our TBI Voices project, watching sports helped him through his brain injury. It is clear that engaging in recreational therapy, whatever that might mean to you, has positive effects on a person.

Reno a couple months ago was in a dark place. He swallowed his wedding ring and tossed his cross necklace into the lake. He had made a noose out of a parachute cord. Although he attempted suicide, it was not his time yet. He survived.

He went on to find an invigorating feeling in his new hobby of taking care of and riding horses. The organization, BraveHearts, located in Poplar Grove and Harvard, IL allows veterans, many of whom have TBI, to work with their horses. Reno’s journey led him to this place where riding horse paralleled his own life experience. The horse had scars representing fights out in the wild in Wyoming. Reno had scars both physical and mental symbolizing his battle wounds.

The wild mustangs are hypervigilant, not knowing if they can trust their environment, Director of Operations Paddy McKevitt said. They have to be because in the wild they have to make sure they will not turn into some other animal’s prey, he said. “Veterans that come back from combat can relate to what’s going on with the horse,” he said. “Especially the wild horses when we bring them in, they’re very skeptical of the environment. It’s the same thing with the veterans.”

Both the survival of the horse and of the soldier depend on hypervigilance and being aware of one’s surroundings and able to adapt, McKevitt said. They don’t know who they can trust, he said. However, with time, the horse starts to look to the soldier for safety and security. It’s very much a healing process for the soldiers and the horse.

“We instruct the veteran to become a quiet confident leader,” McKevitt said. “It can be very empowering for the veterans.”

Reno’s goal was to help more people with this kind of therapy. It gets the vet out of the house and actively doing something. It could be easy to hide in the house, hide behind chores, hide behind his wife, but it is far more rewarding to get out and start working with these gentle creatures.

“The purpose of the program is to create a union or a bond between our veterans and horses to provide healing for both,” McKevitt said.

Reno appreciated the positive effect of working with these horses. “It’s like feeling alive,” he said to the Chicago Tribune. The horses, he said, make “life worth living.”

McKevitt said that the experience of working with a horse is unique. With a dog, the dog will always be loyal. The horse is different. When something is going on internally, the horse senses that. The handler has to adjust to find the right amount of strength and the right amount of meekness.

Many soldiers come back with TBI, but other kinds of situations may also benefit from this kind of therapy, such as the case of Kevin who was injured in an assault with a crowbar. “Trauma is trauma,” said McKevitt, who hopes to expand programming to other groups of people too. McKevitt hopes to get centers all across the country.


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

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