Veterans talk about the power of horses in the fight against PTSD

Angie Colella, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, had tried almost everything to stop PTSD from taking over her life when, in 2017, she walked into the round pen at the BraveHearts farm in Harvard, Ill., with a Mustang that had just been in the wild.

Colella is just one of hundreds of veterans who have been helped by programs like the one at BraveHearts, which is the largest equine therapy program in the country for both active duty service members and veterans.

“I had never done anything as far as horsemanship and all of a sudden I’m in this round pen with a 1,000-lb. animal that could do great damage,” Colella, 52, tells PEOPLE for this week’s issue.

“I was nervous for sure,” says the Illinois resident, who enlisted in 1989, just before the start of the Gulf War. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do with this horse?'”

Miracles, it turns out, and ones that help her deal with the triggers that make her have vivid flashbacks and relive the horrors of her past.

“You learn to ground yourself and be aware of where you really are,” she says. “You think, ‘I’m here. I’m in this office. I’m safe. The people who walk in the door behind me are not coming to attack me.'”

Getting her horse to trust her and making the huge animal trot, change direction, slow down, and walk right next to her with his nose on her shoulder gave her a sense of accomplishment.

“I couldn’t believe I had actually done it,” she says. “It was just an amazing feeling of accomplishment, because if I can do that, if I can move this animal around and have him trust me and depend on me, then what can’t I do in life?”

In 2002, the late Dr. Rolf Gunner and his wife, Marge Gunnar, started BraveHearts in northern Illinois. Max, their stallion, helped Marge Gunnar get through the worst of her cancer diagnosis. BraveHearts offers free therapy to veterans to help them overcome debilitating mental health problems like PTSD and drug and alcohol abuse.

In 2010, Meggan Hill-McQueeney, who was born without her right arm, took over the program in Harvard and Poplar Grove. She says that the beautiful animals helped her figure out how to get around in the world.

When she first started working with the horses there, “I heard people say they might not be here had it not been for a horse,” she says. “That was just a whole other level of healing I didn’t know horses were capable of.”

“God designed horses to be extra special,” she adds.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that 20 veterans die by suicide every day, which made Hill-McQueeney very worried. So, in 2017, she started the Trail to Zero Ride to End Veteran Suicide.

“We want to bring the number of veteran suicides down to zero,” says Hill-McQueeney, whose parents got her riding at 3 to teach her how to operate with one arm in a two-arm world.

Each year, BraveHearts instructors and participants ride 20 miles through cities across the country to spread word about the silent and often forgotten pain veterans suffer and that help is out there.

“They are an incredible team,” says Hill-McQueeney about the “selfless staffers and volunteers who have been with me for over a decade.”