Riders

The Veterans

Mary Ballengee
San Marcos, TX

Mary Ballengee, US Army veteran, served from 1975-1978. Mary battled with the trauma from active duty for nearly two decades before she finally felt relief, which she attributes to Pecos, a wild mustang she gentled and competed in the Mustang Million Competition.  Pecos helped to break down her walls, trust, believe, and look forward to the next chapter of her life – where horses would be at the center.  With Pecos’s guidance, Mary quickly learned that her “trauma would always be there but if you have a horse, it’s going to be ok.” Since starting her journey with horses, Mary has played an instrumental role in the healing journey for many veterans. She helped to start an all-female veterans riding group in Texas and became a PATH certified Instructor through BraveHearts training and certification program for veterans. She has continued to be involved in BraveHearts program and was honored to join this ride to raise awareness for veteran suicide and honor family and friends that she has lost to suicide. 

Mary Jo Beckman
Falls Church, VA

Mary Jo Beckman is a US Navy Commander retired having served from 1973 – 1994. Mary Jo is a PATH Intl. Master Instructor, PATH Intl. Certified Driving Instructor, PATH Intl. Lead Faculty/Evaluator for Registered Instructors, and a PATH Intl. Lead Visitor. She joined Loudoun Therapeutic Riding staff in 1997 and in 2007 expanded the program services to include Therapeutic Driving. From 2006 – 2011, Mary Jo was the instructor for the Caisson Platoon Equine Assisted Programs which used the US Army’s horses that perform military honors in Arlington Cemetery.  Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Washington DC sent riders to this program as part of their rehabilitation.  An outgrowth of this program was NARHA Horses for Heroes and PATH Intl Equine Services for Heroes programs for veterans. In 2011, Mary Jo was awarded the PATH Intl. James Brady Professional Achievement Award for her dedicated service to the industry.    “ I have heard numerous stories about how an injured service person was contemplating suicide, visited the barn one more time, and decided against taking his/her own life.  I have seen how horses can make a difference and now research has proven that equines can benefit veterans.  We need to make this information public knowledge through events such as this ride.”

Fred Busby "Cowboy"
Dekalb, IL

Corporal Fred Busby, US Marine Corps, served from 1980-1983 activity duty military police and 1984-1986 active Marine reserve as military police officer. Following his discharge, Fred continued his law enforcement career for 28 ½ years. Fred, or Cowboy, as his friends call him has been actively participating with BraveHearts for 3 years. The first time Cowboy came to BraveHearts he was meeting with BraveHearts staff, as a representative of his motorcycle club with fellow veteran Marshall Wolfe, to become a potential sponsor to help BraveHearts veterans. His visit was not intended to work with the mustangs but after being captured by their presence, he stepped into the round pen — a moment that changed his life. In this experience the mustang, Oatie, came down next to him and took a deep breath into his ear, almost as a whisper. Since that moment, which he describes as a spiritual moment, Fred has become an active participant at BraveHearts attending lessons and volunteering on a weekly basis and obtained his PATH certified therapeutic riding instructor certificate in 2016. Trail to Zero resonates deep within Cowboy as he has lost several friends to suicide and will ride to honor NIU #76 and DPD #49.  

Seth Hardy
Poplar Grove, IL

Seth Hardy, is a lifelong horseman from the mountains of New Mexico where he grew up riding horses and working cattle on the CS Ranch.  He served in the United States Air Force from 1998 – 2013. After separating from the military he returned home to New Mexico where he got back to his previous lifestyle of working on the ranch and horsemanship. After 4 tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, Seth felt first-hand the struggles of PTSD and noticed how much working with horses helped him to overcome those struggles. Realizing how effective working with horses was for him, Seth knew it was something that he wanted to share with other veterans.   Seth went on to receive a scholarship through Legacy of Legends which took him on a path of horsemanship where he had the opportunity to work for and ride with several world renowned horseman and horsewomen like cutting horse trainer Shannon Hall who told him about BraveHearts and introduced him to Meggan Hill-McQueeney. Seth is the Director of Horsemanship at BraveHearts and is honored to have the opportunity to serve his fellow veterans and share the healing power that horsemanship can provide. Seth will be riding in Trail to Zero in honor of seven individuals he served with who have lost their battle with PTSD and taken their own lives. 

Mitchell Hedlund
Poplar Grove, IL

Mitchell Hedlund, US Army, served from 2011-2012 where he was deployed to Afghanistan. It was his experience in Afghanistan that helped Mitchell find his true passion for helping fellow veterans to rebuild their lives through counseling and recreational sports, like horseback riding. While in Afghanistan, he obtained a physical injury to his back that made him spend some time using a wheelchair and cane to help him move around. During this time, he was also going through a divorce, which made him realize that he needed to find a better way to control his PTSD. While on this journey, he found BraveHearts, where he learned how to become an instructor through BraveHearts training and certification program. Mitchell became an instructor in 2017 and has taught not only veterans but also children, with various diagnoses, how to ride horses. He uses the horse to help his fellow veterans to experience at least 30 minutes (the length of a lesson) of relief from their PTSD symptoms. In return, Mitchell has been able to heal through working with horses and training wild mustangs at BraveHearts.

Jenny McDonald
Fox Lake, IL

Jenny McDonald, US Army Reserve, served from 2001-2006. Jenny came to BraveHearts in April of 2016 for a couples retreat held at the farm. Prior to BraveHearts, Jenny had little equine experience and experienced debilitating anxiety attacks. When she stepped in the round pen and touched the horse for the first time, she instantly felt calm and nothing else mattered except for the connection with the horse in that moment. Jenny was drawn to the therapeutic effect of the horses and knew she wanted to come back for more. Since then, Jenny has signed up for weekly lessons at BraveHearts to work on her riding and horsemanship skills. She continues to be positively affected and engaged by the therapy horses, riding on the all-veteran drill team and participating in many special events. Jenny became a PATH Intl. Instructor in 2017 and currently teaches weekly at BraveHearts. Jenny was part of the 5 veterans who rode in the Trail to Zero pilot ride in 2017.

Bill Mercurio
Machesney Park, IL

Bill Mercurio, was drafted in 1966 for the Vietnam War. He served with the 20th Engineers Battalion in Pleiku, RVN from 1966-1967. Bill first started at BraveHearts in 2016 with his wife, Nancy, whom an avid horse lover was looking to get back to working with horses. Bill and Nancy began volunteering and quickly became immersed in the veteran program, riding together once a week. Bill tragically lost his son in 2017 and has stated that if it were not for BraveHearts, the horses, and his faith, he does not know how he would have been able to get through such a difficult time. Bill rides on the all-veteran drill team and is working on obtaining his PATH Intl. certification to teach fellow veterans how to ride. Bill was part of the 5 veterans who rode in the Trail to Zero pilot ride in 2017. 

Ryan Ohrmundt
Milwaukee, WI

Ryan Ohrmundt, US Army, served from 2002-2010. Ryan was a high-school student teacher when the Twin Towers were attacked in 2001. Following Ryan’s graduation, he signed up to join the Army. Ryan always grew up loving horses because of how gentle and powerful they are. They became an important part of Ryan’s life once he began working with them at BraveHearts. He soon realized the impact of the mustangs and horses and their ability to teach him how his own behaviors affect those surrounding him. Ryan has been a veteran at BraveHearts the longest out of this group, riding since 2010. Ryan was also awarded the PATH Intl. Veteran of the Year award in 2010 for his achievement and dedication to riding.  Ryan was part of the 5 veterans who rode in the Trail to Zero pilot ride in 2017.

Mitchell Reno
North Richlands, TX

Mitchell Reno, US Army Infantry, OIF/OEF veteran served from 2000-2004. Mitchell was introduced to BraveHearts through an Illinois VA program he was enrolled in. When he saw the mustangs, it was love at first sight. After his program ended, he came back from Texas to participate specifically with the mustangs at BraveHearts.  He can relate to the mustang’s hesitations and difficulty with trusting their new normal and relates what the mustang is going through to his own experience with reintegrating into civilian life.   Mitchell describes working with the mustangs as a tidal wave of emotions.  He loves the challenge the mustang brings him and knowing that every inch the mustang gives him has been earned. He enjoys the rush of adrenaline he gets when first stepping into the round pen and explains the feeling that overcomes him when working the mustang as the most calming feeling he has ever experienced. He relates the soothing feeling that he is overcome with similar to the way it feels when holding and rocking his sons. After years of struggling with substance abuse and PTSD attacks, Mitchell has, for the first time since the military, been able to see a future for him and has the feeling that everything is going to be ok. He has obtained his PATH certification and has become very involved in BraveHearts teaching veterans and becoming a Special Olympics coach to teach children and adults to prepare for the equestrian games. After 1.5 years at BraveHearts, Mitchell has returned home to Texas to be with his wife and children. He is still very involved at BraveHearts and will be speaking at the PATH 2018 Conference in Orlando, FL as the keynote speaker. His dream is to develop or work for a program in Texas to help more veterans. Reno was part of the 5 veterans who rode in the Trail to Zero pilot ride in 2017.

Trecia Rodgers
Corpus Christi, TX

Trecia Rodgers, US Army Veteran, served from 2009 – 2014. After returning home from war, Trecia was faced with emotional and physical injuries that left her angry and contemplating if life was worth living. After numerous therapies, Trecia found horses through a friend. Within a couple of months, Trecia began to rehabilitate and participating in daily activities that she once thought may never be possible, again. Trecia came to BraveHearts in 2015 to participate in a Working Cattle Workshop instructed by Shannon Hall and Doug Jordan.  Trecia became immersed in riding and wanting to help fellow veterans to rediscover themselves and heal. She became certified at BraveHearts in 2016 as part of the first pilot program for the Instructor Training and Certification program for veterans. Trecia is currently a senior at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi studying to obtain her bachelor’s in Psychology. She is also currently working to open her own center to help reach more veterans.

Michael Sullivan
Milwaukee, VA

Michael is a 38 year old United States Army OEF/OIF Veteran suffering from what he now knows is PTSD. For years he compartmentalized these emotions. Unfortunately, these thoughts, feelings and emotions began to surface like a violent storm. He began to feel as if he had to be constantly on guard, he was always anxious, afraid, lonely, ashamed and as if he was no longer the same man. He soon found that he could quickly cope with these feelings by self medication. This led to an addiction causing stressed family relationships and avoiding life as it once was. It wasn’t until a proper diagnosis that he could accept that he was truly sick and suffering. Michael now receives VA care and with the help of the horse as well as the team at BraveHearts, he has been able to begin a new chapter of his life which involves recovery. Michael no longer feels like he is going to be another statistic. Today, Michael feels hopeful and is rebuilding his life one day at a time.

Marshall Wolfe
Belvidere, IL

Marshall Wolfe, US Marine, served from 1981-1989. Marshall became interested in BraveHearts when looking for an organization for his motorcycle club to donate funds for veterans with fellow veteran, Cowboy. After visiting BraveHearts, he soon became a volunteer helping other veterans and people in need in sessions. Shortly thereafter, Marshall started receiving lessons at BraveHearts through their Veterans Program. Marshall believes that there is a camaraderie that happens when working with the mustangs that is similar to the camaraderie found in the military. He feels that the mustangs are the spirit of survival. They represent freedom. The bond that happens from working with the mustang is the same profound bond that experienced in the military. Working with mustangs brings his mind at ease and a sense of nirvana overcomes him, which he is then able to share with everyone he encounters.  Marshall became a PATH Intl. certified instructor in 2017 and has been teaching at BraveHearts ever since helping veterans and children with various diagnoses.

Gold Star Father

Ken Boyd
Palatine, IL

Ken Boyd is a Gold-Star Father. His son, US Marine, Cpl. C.J. Boyd was KIA in Afghanistan in 2010. After C.J.’s death Patty attended, the first Gold Star Mother’s retreat held at BraveHearts, which she states, “saved her life.” Ken and his wife Patty have supported BraveHearts veterans since C.J.’s death to honor C.J. Ken has become extremely active with BraveHearts riding, helping with special events, and currently sitting on the Board of Directors. Ken and Patty purchased a horse in 2016, fortuitously named Brother, who now holds the name “C.J.’s” Brother. Ken has been riding weekly, ever since Brother has come into his life and attributes his healing to this remarkable horse and to the service; he has given to BraveHearts to help C.J.’s brothers and sisters.

Support Staff

Danielle Ambrecht
Merrick, NY

Danielle Ambrecht is a native New Yorker and a veteran of the New York Police Department. She has been immersed in the Long Island horse industry since she was a young girl. She started out showing hunter jumpers and currently competes in a variety of western events. Danielle worked closely with Aaron and Meggan to make Trail to Zero possible and was on the 2017 pilot ride.

Meggan Hill-McQueeney
Cheyenne, WY

Meggan Hill-McQueeney is a lifelong equestrian. Nationally, she has competed in both English and western events since childhood and, later, she competed at the Mustang Million. Meggan spent much of her time in the cutting horse and thoroughbred performance horse worlds, learning the art of breeding, raising and competing at the highest levels. Meggan is self-taught, relying on her experiences and her natural understanding of both horses and humans. She developed her own therapeutic riding program in 1996 and began a second in 1999. In 2010 Meggan stepped into the role of BraveHearts President/COO. She is the 2015 recipient of the PATH Intl. James Brady Professional Achievement Award, honoring her great dedication, proven leadership and high ethical standards as well as her ability to develop and implement innovative, creative and effective ideas for the industry. Meggan’s theories have resulted in the ability of BraveHearts to expand its veteran services nationally, helping BraveHearts PATH Premier Accredited Center retain its status as the largest veteran program in the nation, using innovative equine-assisted services. Meggan’s desire to provide quality programing through higher-degree horsemanship with veterans is achieved through advanced concepts including gentling wild mustangs; mentoring veterans to become PATH certified instructors, and working cattle. Under her leadership, BraveHearts has developed a top-notch team of staff and extraordinary horses providing 13,107 sessions to 726 veterans in 2017 – all at no cost to any veteran. Meggan is a firm believer, as heard in her 2015 TED Talk that all veterans deserve to be given limitless opportunities – and that belief is demonstrated daily through the veterans who organically begin to explore a world of possibilities because of the experiences with BraveHearts horses and staff.

Aaron Ralston
Silt, Co

Aaron Ralston is a top-ranked professional trainer and won the Gold Medal in Reining at the World Equestrian Games in Germany. Aaron owns and operates a successful performance horse training business and has been involved with BraveHearts for the past several years helping to develop the horsemanship of veterans, volunteers and staff. Aaron worked closely with Meggan Hill-McQueeney to make Trail to Zero Possible and was on the 2017 pilot ride.