After 20 years of military life and multiple deployments, Jeff and Laura Unsworth know the toll military service can have on both the service member and his or her family. Their horses have been a source of comfort and strength for both Jeff and Laura while Jeff served in the Army, then the National Guard, and now in the Maryland Active Guard Reserve. The Unsworths’ desire to share the healing power of horses with other military families led them to create the Brave Heroes Equine Adventure & Riding Therapy (Brave HEART) program in 2012.
The nonprofit program serves active duty military members, veterans, and their families on the Unsworths’ serene farm in Hagerstown, Maryland. Their 22-acre property is tucked away at the end of a long lane, providing an ideal setting for the program—especially for participants with post-traumatic stress disorder. For some veterans, Brave HEART is the only reason they’ll leave the house besides doctor appointments.
The participants work with the Unsworths’ two horses in a small arena that is equipped with a wheelchair-accessible mounting ramp. Surrounded by horses, green open spaces, and fresh air, military members and veterans are given a chance to decompress and heal.
“A horse mirrors your state of mind at the time, so it kind of forces people to live in the moment and take a deep breath,” says Laura. “You’re connecting with an animal—a living thing—and that’s all you’re focused on. At that moment, you're no longer focusing on yourself or your problems.”
Some participants ride, but many choose to do the horsemanship program, which offers lessons on grooming, basic horse care, anatomy, and tack. The unique combination of relaxing and engaging experiences offered by the Brave HEART program help participants leave the past in the past and start on a path toward healing.
“It’s so powerful to get people out of their regular routine and put them together in a new environment with a few new challenges or something fun to do,” says Laura. “ It really seems to help.”
The program also offers healing opportunities for the families. Deployments, 60+ hour work weeks, and the stress of military life can strain relationships, and Brave HEART offers families a chance to repair and strengthen those connections.
In addition to experiencing the healing power of horses, families can reconnect with each other while taking part in the farm’s many activities. Families stroll along the nature trail and stop to have a picnic lunch in one of the garden areas. Children paint Breyer horses and birdhouses and get hands-on animal husbandry lessons with the farm’s sheep, turkeys, and chickens. S’mores around the campfire provide a perfect end to the day.
“[Families] just remember how much fun it can be to be a family and establish some new good bonds and good memories,” says Laura.
Those good memories come at no cost to the families, thanks to the generosity of the Unsworths, volunteers, and the local community. More than a dozen volunteers help run the program, some of whom are veterans themselves. An annual fundraiser put on by the local community foundation offers matching funds for donations, and local businesses support the program as well.
The Unsworths hope to eventually build a larger barn and an indoor arena so they can help even more military families. The Brave HEART program may be small, but the impact it has on the men, women, and children who have sacrificed so much for our country far exceeds its size.