The horses are surprisingly calm as they walk down the bustling steel and concrete corridor of New York City’s Fifth Avenue. A few of their riders are somber, subdued by the gravity of the ride’s purpose. Others are giddy, happy to be here—to be alive. Bright yellow ribbons ornament the horses’ manes, fluttering gently as they catch the breeze. The ribbons aren’t festive decorations, however. Each bears the name of a veteran lost to suicide.
Mitchell Reno was almost one of those ribbons.
The Price of Service
By 2004, combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq had left the former infantryman shattered—both physically and mentally. Unprepared for re-entry into civilian life, Reno spent the next decade intent on self-destruction, mired in dark thoughts, chasing comfort through alcohol and pills.
“When I say I was at-risk, I truly was,” he says. “I had lost everything that was ever important to me and was at rock bottom. I spent 10 years in a slow suicide. I just wanted to be dead.”
Reno’s story is all too common among veterans. Bearing both the physical and invisible scars of service, the suicide rate among the veteran population is nearly double that of civilians. According to a 2016 report published by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), an average of 20 veterans die from suicide every day.
It is a crisis that BraveHearts—the nation's largest equine-based therapeutic program for military veterans—is on a mission to address.
When Reno discovered BraveHearts in 2014 through a trip coordinated by a local hospital’s PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) program, the bleak, dead-end path he’d envisioned for himself was finally illuminated by a glimmer of hope. There he first laid eyes on a mustang named Boo-Yah. Newly arrived at BraveHearts as part of its Operation Mustang program, Boo-Yah was scared and defiant. The horse had scars crisscrossing his body; he’d seen battle. He was traumatized. He hadn’t been given many reasons to trust people.
“Just like me,” says Reno.
Reno made a deal with his sponsor and BraveHearts: if he got clean, they would let him work with the mustang. He entered a rehab facility shortly thereafter and held up his end of the bargain. When he returned to BraveHearts, sober, Reno was instrumental in gentling Boo-Yah.
Through Boo-Yah and the other horses at BraveHearts, Reno learned valuable lessons about trust, self-worth, vulnerability, and empathy. These lessons transcended the arena, and Reno—now happily married with children—finally sees a future for himself. “It’s no exaggeration when I say horses saved my life,” he says. “They very literally saved my life.”
As the Trail to Zero events manager at BraveHearts, Avery White has witnessed many veterans like Reno being pulled back from the brink of suicide through the healing power of horses.
“Veterans are desperately seeking something,” she says. “They’ve tried medication and therapy, and nothing has worked until horses. It’s a miracle I’ve seen happen over and over again.”
Riding, Healing, Connecting
In 2017, to raise awareness about the VA’s sobering statistic and how horses are helping struggling veterans, BraveHearts launched its pilot Trail to Zero ride. On October 22, 2017, veterans rode 20 miles through New York City—one mile for each veteran lost every day to suicide.
Since that inaugural event, Trail to Zero has grown to include 20-mile rides in major cities across the country. Each ride attracts much-needed attention for the cause. It’s not only media outlets and photo-snapping tourists that gather to take in the spectacle of horses making their way through urban centers; those whose lives have been touched by war also come to make a connection.
“So many people come up to us to share their personal connections, and unfortunately, their losses,” says White. “Having those moments—it’s powerful.”
Reno, who has been part of Trail to Zero every year since its inception, openly shares his story of struggle and salvation with those he meets along the ride. He says, “Trail to Zero is one of the most important things in my life because if we don’t do something about veteran suicide, there’s going to be no one left writing our history. Horses helped bring me home. Riding Trail to Zero with my brothers and sisters, telling the world about the dark places I came from and where I am now—hopefully bringing someone a little bit of hope— that’s the least I can do.”
Often, the connections made during Trail to Zero set others on the path to healing. White says that after every ride, BraveHearts’ inbox is full of messages from those seeking help for friends, family members or themselves.
“If there’s just one veteran we can keep from becoming a statistic, it’s worth it,” she says.
This year will be a banner year for Trail to Zero: For the remaining 2020 rides, their goal is to have 20 riders ride 20 horses for 20 miles. White hopes the program will continue to grow and gain momentum, inspiring veterans to seek equine-assisted healing.
BraveHearts will continue doing Trail to Zero, she says, until there’s no need for the ride at all. ★
BraveHearts’ Trail to Zero rides brings the overwhelming statistic of 20 veterans committing suicide per day to the forefront of Americans’ minds while also helping to educate veterans and Americans about equine-assisted services. Learn more about Trail to Zero and where rides are taking place at trailtozero.org.
The PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center, based in Illinois, provides equine-assisted activities and therapies to children and adults. They also provide innovative services to meet the unique needs of military veterans and their families. Learn more at braveheartsriding.org.
BraveHearts was a 2019 grant recipient from Feed it Forward™, Nutrena’s giving program that provides support for organizations promoting the life-changing bond between animals and people. Learn more at feeditforward.org.