Healing Our Heroes


How horses are bringing hope to those who give their all

By Susan Baldani

Many of our veterans have a hard time transitioning back into civilian life. Suicide and divorce rates are high, and traditional therapies are not always successful when dealing with their unique issues.

Jennifer O’Neill, the long-time actress, model and author, set out to help these heroes. In 2010, she started Hope & Healing at Hillenglade, an equine-assisted program for veterans (and first responders) that teaches them new ways of coping with a myriad of issues. Steven DePalma, her partner with Hope & Healing, has served in Afghanistan.

“There’s something very special about warrior to warrior conversations,” she said.

All programs take place on her farm, located right outside of downtown Nashville. Veterans often come to Hillenglade from Fort Campbell, as well as  organizations such as Operation Stand Down and Wounded Warriors.

“We have served over 4000 military and first responders and their families,” she said.

O’Neill believes that it’s not enough just to work with the veteran or first responder; you also have to work with their families.

“We are intent on dealing with the entire family unit,” she said. “You can’t deal with one person and not look at the trickle-down effect.”

When participants arrive, they meet with O’Neill and/or DePalma and get to know each other. This exchange helps to ascertain the specific needs of the veterans and first responders. Once that’s done, they will begin to interact with the horses.

“It’s so interesting to see what happens, because it varies with the person and with the horse,” she said. “For instance, knowing our horses and knowing our guests, we can partner them with a specific horse that will work on their specific issues.”

Horses, she said, are flight animals. Their instinct is to check you out to see if you’re going to hurt them.

“Our program is not about riding; it’s all about ground work,” said O’Neill. “Horses have 17 expressions, so it’s interesting to see these men and women warriors who come in perhaps feeling distant, and develop a trusting relationship with our horses.”

What happens, she said, is this beautiful dance between the person in the pen and the horse. During this time, the horse is loose – or at liberty – and by using specialized exercises, O’Neill and DePalma help to create a relationship between the two.

“When a horse, this 1200-pound animal, comes to them by its own volition and willingness to want to partner and have a relationship with them, you just see these amazing heroes just break down and completely respond.”

Many times, she said, participants don’t realize they’re presenting with anger, or coldness, or acting threatening.

“Horses are our mirrors, and with their 17 different expressions, they can show what they think of us pretty easily,” said O’Neill. “God was in a good mood when he made a horse.”

Initially, Hillenglade Hope & Healing hosted large celebrations where veterans, first responders, and their families could get away in the country and be around the wonder of therapy horses. However, when they were finally able to build a covered pen a couple of years ago, they got into deeper healing programs.

“That has been a real blessing,” she said. “It’s very difficult to start to do deeper healing and say ‘Well, I’ll see you in the spring,’ or ‘The weather’s not going to be good this month.’ Now, we have groups come down for three-day deeper healing events.”

Once participants have gone through their program, O’Neill and DePalma will then have them talk about what they’ve learned and experienced at the farm and how they can take that home to their families and friends and to their work environment. If requested, they will also work in concert with certified counselors in more traditional therapies.

Hillenglade Hope & Healing also offers an Empowerment Transition Program. This program provides veterans  a place to stay on the farm for three to six months, while they work through their issues. During this time, they work on the farm daily with the horses and learn how to care for them. Once they graduate, they can then get a job in the equine world.

O’Neill would like to expand Hillenglade’s offerings, but it’s been very difficult lately for many 501(c)(3) organizations. Because all of their programs are free for the veterans, first responders, and their families, their financial needs are great.

“We’re just hoping that people recognize the importance of  this program and help us to keep doing this,” she said. “These days, there’s a lot of need everywhere, but this is not frivolous. This is lifesaving.”

To donate, please go to their website at http://hillenglade.org/. They also need hard-working volunteers who are willing to groom horses, clean stalls, paint fences, and prepare for events. If you can help, please contact them for more information.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.

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