Meggan Hill-McQueeney: “Be cognizant of veterans’ needs — and accommodate them”

Believe. If you are dedicated to your cause, have a solid team behind you, and persevere with your goal in mind, the pieces will align. Sometimes, the journey doesn’t always seem to make sense, but it led you to where you are now, and will lead you where you’re meant to go. You can’t always […]

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Believe. If you are dedicated to your cause, have a solid team behind you, and persevere with your goal in mind, the pieces will align. Sometimes, the journey doesn’t always seem to make sense, but it led you to where you are now, and will lead you where you’re meant to go. You can’t always see why things are in front of you on your trail, but when you look back behind at where you have been, I always think the ride makes perfect sense.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meggan Hill-McQueeney.

Meggan Hill-McQueeney, President and COO of BraveHearts, is a lifelong equestrian. She is a PATH International Master Level Instructor, a Special Olympics coach, a Paralympic Coach, and a PATH evaluator. Meggan 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.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I first witnessed the healing power of horses while I was working on a ranch in Colorado after college, where I was teaching riding. A family brought their 4-year-old son, born with Down syndrome who was uncommunicative, to the ranch. The energy of the horse simply captivated him. As he was sitting on the horse, he signed “horse” — which was the very first word he had ever communicated. After that, I dove headfirst into learning everything I could about therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. I helped start a therapeutic riding program in 1996 and began a second in 1999.

In 2010, I stepped into the role of BraveHearts President/COO and began working with military veterans at our two farms about 70 miles northeast of Chicago, IL. BraveHearts is a nonprofit and now the largest Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) program in the country serving veterans all at no cost. We offer equine assisted activities and therapies to provide emotional, cognitive, social, and physical benefits for veterans, children, and adults.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Without a doubt, the most rewarding project that I have been a part of at BraveHearts is Trail to Zero. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, each day, on average, 20 veterans and active service members are lost to suicide. Trail to Zero was developed after countless conversations with veterans about this epidemic in our country — veterans losing brothers and sisters to suicide. Veterans wanted a movement; a 20-mile horseback ride, one mile to commemorate each life lost. On October 22, 2017, five-veterans, U.S. Olympic Rider Aaron Ralston, and I embarked on a 20-mile ride through New York City on our first Trail to Zero. Now in its fourth year, we take BraveHearts to cities across the country annually, including Washington, D.C., Houston, Lexington, and Chicago. We have received overwhelming support from the public at each Trail to Zero ride. Last year, our NYC ride was larger than ever before — it was heartwarming to see so many people turn out to support our veterans and raise awareness about this issue.

When asking veterans about the Trail to Zero rides and what they would like to share, so many say that after so many years of losing friends, they feel that this ride gives their brothers and sisters a voice and their passing wasn’t in vain.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A mistake I made early on was with the interns and junior staff on the farm. When first starting out, many of our junior volunteers didn’t always remember the breadth of training and intelligence that veterans have. Once it was brought to my attention, it really emphasized the learning curve that is still needed for so many people to communicate and challenge everyone equally. At our farms, holding someone back is our own fault and shortcomings as instructors and it’s certainly not any fault of the students. We work hard to get all our riders as independent and successful as soon as possible.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

BraveHearts has helped over 1,750 people (including 1,000 veterans) through 25,000 sessions in 2019 alone. We offer physical, occupational and speech therapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), and therapeutic riding for children, adults and veterans.

I haven’t seen a situation that a horse hasn’t been an answer to. After working with the mustangs, veterans report benefits including increased self-esteem, self-worth, trust for others and decreased depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and suicidal ideations. As the largest program in the nation using equine assisted activities and therapies for veterans, all at no cost, we are hoping to spread the word of the benefits of horses as much as possible. Many veterans come to our farms in Illinois because nothing else has worked for them. It’s not long before veterans also often share with me how the horses were able to bring them back. Because of this, we know that change is possible by putting veterans and horses together. When we reach veterans battling suicidal ideologies, and let them know that they are not alone, that the community cares, and innovative services help — we do our job. We continue to strive to reach as many veterans as possible. Is it unconventional? Yes. Does it help? Yes. Is it worth trying? Why would you not!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One veteran who works with us at BraveHearts stands out to me. In one year, this particular veteran went from being totally unfamiliar with therapeutic riding, to leading peer-to-peer mentor sessions with veterans. When people first start with us, they usually struggle to get healthy — mentally and physically — and there are a lot of challenges to overcome. This person jumped right in with the program and was so hungry to understand the horses. One night, I was watching him teach a class and was so moved by his words to a group of new veterans at the end of their first session:

“Ladies and gentlemen, well done. I’m so proud of everything you’ve accomplished tonight. A year ago, I was coming off the same bus that you arrived on tonight. That was me exactly. I came from VA hospital, the same spot you came from. In just one year, I’ve come a very long way and here I am teaching a class with all of you. I couldn’t have imagined that my life would change so much, but I am living proof that change is possible.”

Veterans are constantly giving their all for others, they have served our country, many have seen combat, and are now battling to get their lives together. This was one of my favorite moments and watching him teach just gave me goosebumps. It was the embodiment of everything we are hoping to accomplish. Healing horsemanship is constantly happening, totally legitimate at our farms.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. Cultivate a conversation around mental health

We are facing an epidemic in this country affecting those who have already sacrificed so much and put their lives on the line for our nation. To lead more veterans to treatment and reduce the number of suicides, the nation must cultivate a positive conversation around mental health — one in which seeking help is encouraged and seen as acceptable, not shameful.

2. Encourage people not to give up and try non-conventional treatments

Every person (veteran or non-veteran) has unique mental health needs due to their personal life experiences. For some, a conventional treatment plan of talk therapy or medication yields great response and for some little or no results, and this can discourage individuals from seeking further help. Studies show that a systematic and integrated approach to treatment is more effective in reducing health care disparities in patients from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and is more effective than conventional care models for treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In addition to non-traditional therapies such as meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture and yoga, veterans participating in equine-assisted services have reported benefits including increased self-esteem, self-worth and sense of community and decreased level of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and self-inflicting thoughts.

3. Be cognizant of veterans’ needs — and accommodate them.

There is no cookie cutter approach to helping people, and there shouldn’t be. As part of BraveHearts’ mission, we always consider the unique needs of the individual and do not fit anyone into a set mold. There should be structure and systems in place, but they should always be based around the veterans themselves and what is in their best interest. We are constantly listening to our community and trying to respond to what people really need, rather than what is easiest or fastest. People and wellness take time. We aren’t afraid to keep evolving and growing with our community. It’s the only way we can help one another.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as being able to walk the walk, or in my case, ride the horse, not just sit around and shoot the breeze. As a leader, it is very important to be a team member and understand each job that you are asking someone else to do. I think a leader should be able to step into any of the roles in their organization as needed. I wouldn’t ask someone to do something if I couldn’t do it. When I teach or work with horses or assign tasks to employees or volunteers, I am constantly thinking about how much pressure the person or horse can handle, and what exactly is needed to ensure a successful outcome. I treat each one as an individual and try to know what makes them comfortable, what they like and don’t like, and how to have them hunt success.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1- Anything worthwhile is always uphill. The learning curve for anyone starting out working with horses is steep. There is only so much you can learn through reading and Google — much of the wisdom gained in this field is through hands on experience and putting in the time and effort in the arena. There is endless sweat equity involved with good horsemen.

2- Trust the horse, it will never fail. Some vets start out skeptical and doubtful that a horse can really help their situation, but I have never seen a situation where a horse has not helped. Usually after the first session, we can’t get people to leave the farms! There is a rush of so much positivity. When you’re near a horse, you have to practice the art of keeping your energy in a good spot — to trust them, they have to trust you. Helping a horse reciprocates to helping the person, it’s a natural thing and it does end up changing you. Usually veterans don’t just tell me that the horse improved their quality of life, they sometimes state they might not be here had it not been for a horse. That’s a weighty thing to hear and I think there is a lot more to it. First, God puts something so sacred and extraordinary in horses. Secondly, the person had the resilience to keep on going next to the horses. The horses are, for sure, a beautiful gamechanger. BraveHearts is full of comeback stories.

3- Understand balance. I find my physical and emotional and mental balance, ironically, when I ride. Know your limits and learn when you need to take a break and recharge. As a leader, replenishing your own self is just as important as watching out for your team. Practice what you preach. Sometimes when I get in a bad spot, I need to spend my own quiet time with my horse. I find a lot of good answers in a stall, pasture, on a ride or in an arena.

4- Never stop learning. I have been working with horses all my life and I am still surprised and amazed at what they continue to teach me. The most valuable lessons I have ever learned have come from working directly with the horses and veterans at BraveHearts. By learning directly from them and being open to new ideas, I am constantly challenged to develop new programs and innovate better methods, always growing.

5- Believe. If you are dedicated to your cause, have a solid team behind you, and persevere with your goal in mind, the pieces will align. Sometimes, the journey doesn’t always seem to make sense, but it led you to where you are now, and will lead you where you’re meant to go. You can’t always see why things are in front of you on your trail, but when you look back behind at where you have been, I always think the ride makes perfect sense.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Every year, BraveHearts mounts trail rides through major cities across the country called “Trail to Zero.” Twenty veterans ride 20 miles on horseback to commemorate the 20 veterans and active service members lost to suicide every day. This is our fourth year with “Trail to Zero” and we will continue to ride until the number of veterans’ lives lost is zero. This epidemic warrants more attention, and there is a lot left to do.

I hear the same feedback over and over again: horses are vital to changing people’s lives. I would love to see the day where equine therapy is widely available at VA hospitals and even folded into traditional therapies. There should be more opportunities for those struggling to work with horses.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — President Theodore Roosevelt.

My favorite quote is President Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech. It hangs on the wall in my office. I love that he was a pioneer, a cowboy, a leader, and from the time he was born was so resilient in his very nature. I think grit is a great achievement.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to speak with General Colin Powell.

General Powell’s value system as backed up by his lifetime of honored service, good works, and relentless focus and care for our troops, makes him a person I think of as being most aligned with BraveHearts mission. I briefly heard the General when he gave a talk to veterans in Rockford, Illinois in 2015. BraveHearts sponsored that event and I was able to hear him firsthand. His life and leadership philosophy aligns perfectly with BraveHearts’ mission and philosophy.

I start with one of the chapters in his book “It Worked For Me”: Kindness Works. He describes kindness in a much broader sense than most people think of: “Kindness is not just about being nice; it’s about recognizing another human being who deserves care and respect.”

His vision of a leader as a “problem solver.” He has said in his speeches, articles and books that the day you are not solving problems, the day your people stop bringing you problems, is the day you stop being a leader. If your desk is clean and no one is bringing you problems, it means people don’t think you can solve problems or don’t think you care.

His respect and care for the troops of the U.S. military. The General’s “brand” is all about care for the troops. When he was starting out as a lieutenant, he kept a pocket notebook of all the soldiers he was responsible for — name, birthdate, family, hometown, education. As his role grew, he asked his staff to keep him briefed on people. He often says: “Real leadership and unfailing respect are a retail issue. They happen on the ground where the troops are.” And he would always make himself accessible to the troops.

This is very much what we’re about at BraveHearts. Kindness, problem solving and care for veterans. We also constantly seek ways to make ourselves more accessible to veterans. That’s what Trail to Zero is about — making people aware of the veteran mental health problem we have as a country and reaching out to find the veterans who need our services.

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